Everyone’s a rock critic: The lost Lester Bangs radio interview
In 1980, following the release of Blondie, Lester Bangs was interviewed for a radio program called “News Blimp.” A copy of the tape was sent to me anonymously by someone who “fished it out of the garbage.” The interviewer is unknown, and my searches online for “News Blimp” also pulled up nothing. I’ve been advised by someone who was close to Bangs that there’s really no issue with my running it on this site, especially given that the source is a mystery. (And yes, it’s the real deal.)
– Scott Woods, 2001
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Interviewer: First let me ask you if it was difficult writing a biography without the help of the people that you were writing about?
Bangs: You know, in a way it was and in a way it wasn’t because there’s something that happens when you get the collaboration, or the cooperation, of the people you’re working with; all of a sudden you’re on their side, they take you into their confidence and you’re all buddy-buddy, and you’re almost like a recruit to the cause. Whereas if you have absolutely no cooperation at all, then you know that you at least can maintain your objectivity, you know?
Interviewer: Lester, is this the first book you’ve written?
Bangs: Yeah…Well, I wrote a novel in 1968 when I was in junior college called Drug Punk about drinking Romilar cough syrup, but this is the first book I’ve written that’s been published.
Interviewer: Why did you decide to choose Blondie? Was it a vehicle you were approached with?
Bangs: Yeah, it was a vehicle I was approached with and at the time I figured that it was a good way to talk about a lot of things I wanted to talk about, one of which was to tell the story of the connection between the glitter era and the punk era in New York, punk rock, whatever. I saw that as history, just getting it down, getting the facts straight, like, for instance, that the Ramones did come before the Sex Pistols, you know, in spite of what everyone’s been told. And then, second of all, because in a lot of ways they epitomize a lot of the sort of Andy Warhol blank-out–emotional, anti-emotional, arty kind of neuvo-pop art that has come about in the past few years–the whole People magazine thing that I’m always ranting and raving about–and also because I knew ’em, and it was kind of like, writing about people is better in a lot of ways than…you know, just…oh, I’m starting to babble.
Interviewer: This brings me to some questions about a rock critic’s place in chronicling not just music that seems a growing part of pop culture–let me start by asking how someone becomes a rock critic?
Bangs: I think everybody’s a rock critic, to the extent that you when go into a record store and you decide to buy this one over that one, you’re being a rock critic. I don’t have any more credentials than anyone else. What I would say for myself is everybody knows my prejudices. I’m not God and just because I write something doesn’t make it wrong or right, and I think that being a rock critic a lot of times–the impetus for me and a lot of people I knew was just that we really love rock ‘n’ roll and wanted to talk about it, you know? And there was this outlet. And what kind of makes me mad is a lot of times today it looks like a lot of rock critics that are writing in these magazines it’s like a good way to get a start in a career in journalism or something, you know? It’s not–you don’t sense a real passion for the music.
Interviewer: How did you first get published, and how do most critics begin to get published?
Bangs: Well, I started in, like, 1968, ’69, you know, and there actually used to be a little box in Rolling Stone that said, “Do you write, take pictures, draw pictures? Send your stuff to us and maybe we’ll publish it.” So I actually believed this and I started sending them record reviews, and like, I sent them a pan of the second Grateful Dead album, a pan of the second Steve Miller album, and a review that said White Light/White Heat was the best album of 1968, and Lou Reed was going to be the Chuck Berry of the ’70s, and I raved about The Marble Index by Nico, and I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t print any of this stuff, and then finally I sent this review of the MC5–I really hated their first album at the time–and they liked that, so they printed that, so that was how I got started.
Interviewer: What about the contention many people have that rock critics are frustrated musicians? Do you find that true among people that you associate with in the rock writing circle?
Bangs: Well, I’m not frustrated anymore because as everybody knows I’ve gone ahead and made my own music. But of COURSE they’re frustrated musicians, everybody’s a frustrated–I think all rock fans are frustrated musicians in the sense that anybody that ever stood in front of a mirror playing an invisible guitar while a record was spinning around playing behind them is a frustrated musician. You know?
Interviewer: You mentioned about the first things you did, and they were pans, there’s also a contention that it’s easier for a critic to write a bad review than a good review because you can pull out all the stops and make clever quips at the expense of bands. Do you find this to be true, and do you find yourself sometimes tempted to head in that vein of a negative review just to sort of clear out your pores?
Bangs: No. Like I always–even reviewing…things like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, I always hope their next album will be really great because you always want something good to listen to. Like I hate everything right now, there’s only about three or four groups I like currently that are actually existing. I want everything to be really great so I’ll have something to play! And, like, I don’t sit down and think, well, let’s see, who can I find to pick on today? Besides which, I think people with critics–critics are the people you love to hate anyway.
Interviewer: Does that ever bother you? Do you find yourself in the center of controversy ever, that bands may take a negative view of you just because you’re a rock critic?
Bangs: Umm, well, I just generally find that if I am ever put in a weirdo position it’s usually by some wretched worm, never anybody that I have any respect for that has any intelligence or anything going for them–it’s usually the worms and the miserables, you know, the wretches of the world, because there’s something about me that I’m sort of like–I don’t know, I’m not snotty with people. I never wrote anything that I thought…well, I wrote one thing, actually, that I thought was wrong, which was that description of Rachel, Lou Reed’s old companion, in Creem.
Interviewer: She’s a sweet girl–or man, or whatever.
Bangs: Yeah, right, I thought that was really vicious and un-called for, and I still regret that, but other than that, I don’t think I ever wrote anything about anybody that they didn’t have enormous hype, a bunch of ego, and a bunch of other crap behind them, and you know, in general I don’t treat people snotty, I don’t go out of my way to pick on groups that are just starting out or trying to get a foothold or whatever. And as far as people attacking me personally, there’s been a lot of reviews that said I couldn’t sing or that I had no business in music or stuff like that, and I welcome those. See, what I think is that anybody that gets up on stage or makes a record is saying, “I’m something special!” And therefore they should be able to take anything that comes through the door, you know. So I’m not gonna whine about any negative reviews or anything like that of my own musical endeavors, ’cause I think it’s just like–it’s an open marketplace of ideas. And there’s even been one review of the Blondie book that–the NME didn’t like it, which I expected coming because all those limeys hate us all ’cause they think we’re decadent Americans anyway. But you know, that guy has a right to say that, and it’s my right to hate a record or this or that, and even to take cheap shots, you know. Like someone in the East Village Eye reviewed my single, and it was a really moronic review–all it said was, “Well, the music stinks, the singing stinks, the lyrics stink,” and that was about the extent of the review, it didn’t go into any really deep analysis or anything, and, all right, fine! That guy has a right to do that, too.
Interviewer: In terms of your own pans that you have produced, have you ever seen anybody afterward who has perhaps said to you, well, those points you pointed out were very valid, and I’m glad you brought them to my attention? Or maybe if not so, other comments that let you know that perhaps some of your negative points of view are taken to heart?
Bangs: Yeah, and like, what I can specifically remember is one case–I can’t name who it was for a reason that’ll shortly become obvious – is I reviewed an album last year by an artist who is one of the most beloved around the New York scene and all that, you know, and I really tore it to shreds, and a person who’s a friend of that artist and a real well-known writer called me up the night the review appeared and said, “Listen, I know you’re gonna get a lot of flak for this, but it’s true and everything, and all his friends have known it for a long time and nobody had the heart to say it, so in the long run you’re doing him a favor.”
Interviewer: You can tell me who it was.
Bangs: Well, all right, yeah, it was David Johansen, I just don’t want to say who the other person was…
Interviewer: Oh, I thought maybe it was Tom Verlaine or something.
Bangs: I wouldn’t do Tom Verlaine any favors.
Interviewer: You started in 1968, and certainly rock journalism and criticism has come a ways from then. Do you think it is in danger of becoming considered “valid” journalism, or do you think it is getting too tainted by respectability, sort of the same type of respectability that people like the Sex Pistols protested about of rock musicians itself? Do you think a counter sort of thing could be happening with rock journalism becoming too staid and accepted?
Bangs: I think it barely exists anymore, but then, neither does the music. I mean, everyone’s acting like there’s this big renaissance going on, and it’s all the emperor’s new clothes. I mean, there’s a few groups that are doing really exciting things, and then there’s like all these phony power-pop groups on one side and all these phony synthesizer groups on the other, and I think it’s a big hype. I think it’s a lot of garbage, and I think that the critics are writing up and saying that all these people like the Pretenders and Lene Lovich and all this stuff is really about something or means anything or stands for anything or isworth anything, only because it gives them something to write about, ’cause otherwise they’d be stuck. It’s not like in 1977 when you had, you know, the Clash, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and the Sex Pistols and all these groups–and the Ramones–and they all stood for something, they were about things. Talking Heads…they all had a real point of view about the world and they really, you know, really meant something, and these groups now, they’re all just interchangeable, they’re just singing piddly little love songs that don’t even matter. You know, I mean, so what if a girl tells a guy to blow off–big deal. Lesley Gore did it years and years ago–so what?!
Interviewer: Lester, artistic points aside, what about the economic viability of the rock criticism profession? IS there economic viability in it?
Bangs: Very little, you know. I mean, I wouldn’t advise anybody to go into it if they wanted to get rich, but I wouldn’t advise anybody to be a writer or a musician if they wanted to get rich. Hell, I’ve known a lot of musicians in bands that had top ten albums and didn’t have a dime in their pockets. But as far as record reviews and that, it doesn’t pay that well. It’s like–I don’t know, if you worm your way into the heart of Rolling Stone and you can get all this money for writing that so and so–that’s one thing I tried to get away from in the Blondie book. It’s like, you read this article that says, “Her heart-stoppingly gorgeous face,” you know. I mean, if you want to write pap like that, you could also go work for the PR agency of a record company or something, you know?
Interviewer: What are your feelings about the influence that critics wield? First of all the medium itself is based on music and listening, and rock critics introduce the writing medium, which, given the average rock fan’s mentality perhaps isn’t too good a start to begin with–what are your feelings about the impact that rock critics have on music? Do you ever wonder whether you’re beating your head into the typewriter?
Bangs: Nah! I mean, for one thing, look what you just said: “the average rock fan’s mentality.” What do you think, they’re all morons or something?
Bangs: I mean, okay, I edited Creem magazine for five years, and we had, like hundreds of thousands of readers who really dug it that we were telling Dylan and the Stones and all these people to go jump in the lake. They weren’t idiots that just swallowed any hype that was shoveled to them. I really–I hate that, that everybody thinks that, that fans are just morons that’ll just swallow any garbage. ‘Cause I think the kids are really sharp. I talked to this 13 year old, he called me up the other day, he wants to write a book about Blondie that–he was right on top of it, you know?
Interviewer: So, you think critics really can serve useful purposes of maybe being a sort of lightning rod to…express new opinions, to at least let other people know that there are others who are thinking along similar lines.
Bangs: Yeah, that’s it, exactly! Because it’s like, okay, let’s say a new Bob Dylan album comes out, right? And it’s all this hype–I’ll give you an example, Hard Rain. When that thing came out, I was sent the album in the mail, I reviewed it, I panned it, I panned the TV show based around it, you know, the whole thing, then I sold the record, and then they started showing these commercials for it on TV and they showed it every station break on the late show, and again and again you see him [affects nasal Dylan whine–words unintelligible]…by the time I’d seen this commercial about 900,000 times, I was ready to go out and buy the damn album over again myself! And–you know what I mean? When you get that much hype battered at you, and you’re told this is hip or that’s cool or something…I mean, I’m not setting myself up as any great God or arbiter or judge or anything, except for me, you know? And like I said at the beginning, everybody knows what my prejudices are. Some of the things I like are very unpopular, some of the other things I like are more popular but, if people are reading me or something, and–let’s say if I, the listener, the record buyer out there, suspects that the new Dylan album is a hype, and is not the great masterpiece it’s cracked up to be by the record company, and all the bought-off people at all the places like Circus and Rolling Stone and all of that, then, you know, then maybe I won’t buy it! You know what I mean?
Interviewer: About these bought-off few, do you feel that a lot of rock criticism is more a pocket-book motivation…
Bangs: No, you don’t understand what I mean. I don’t mean that they’re given direct payola, what I mean is that–it’s more insidious than that. In this country today–like, in Britain, they have a tradition of adversary journalism. It’s expected that if you put out a record the critics are gonna lambaste it, or that the writers or the press are gonna kill you. Here, in terms of rock and popular music and the entertainment industry, in this country, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it is routinely expected that if any artist gives an interview to any writer that they’re automatically gonna get a favorable story, and I think that’s obscene! And they also ask for things, as Blondie did with this book, like, you know, right of approval of a story or a book on them. And I told Chris Stein that I would never give that to anybody because that amounts to an authorized biography which is nothing but a puff job in the first place. And I think nobody should ever–no artist should ever ask for right of approval from any writer for any story.
And I’ve heard all kinds of stories, like, you know, Chet Flippo got thrown off the Rolling Stones tour when he was covering it because Paul Nelson had the temerity to pan Some Girls in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine when Chet Flippo was covering the tour for the same magazine, you know? The same thing happened in England with Stiff Records when I was over there. Some writer panned the Stiff “Greatest Hits” tour, and then asked for Damned tickets, and they said, “Can you believe the nerve of this guy?” And I said, “Well, give him the tickets!” Of course he should have the tickets, so what if he hates every other act on your label except the Damned. If he likes the Damned–or even if he doesn’t!–it’s his right as a critic, you know, to do that. And it really, really angers me that everyone goes along with it. That’s what really kills me. You know, it’s like, “Well, what can you do?” And all the magazines go along with it, and they just print all this pap–they might as well just be writing press releases.
Interviewer: What feedback have you got, if any, from members of Blondie about the biography?
Bangs: Well, after making it incredibly hard for me to do it, they told me they liked it, and since the book has come out I’ve been over to Chris and Debbie’s apartment, you know, and interviewed Chris for my next book, and I guess relations are friendly, I don’t know.
Interviewer: What about the future of rock criticism? Do you see yourself maybe moving into other modes; do you see that maybe you’ll get involved in other kinds of journalism as well, that maybe are pop culture-oriented but not as directly about music?
Bangs: Yeah, I wanna write a book about sex. And in fact, I’m already working on it, it’s about, like, relationships, and men and women and sex, and…I have other interests too. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I’d like to write a book about that, umm, there’s a whole lot of things I’d like to do, you know?
Interviewer: What do you find is the toughest part of being a rock critic?
Bangs: [Pause] Well, you finally asked me a question I can’t think of an immediate answer to. The toughest part of being a rock critic? I don’t know! I mean, let’s face it, I’ve got it easy, I mean, nobody knows it better than I do. All right, I’ll tell you: What bothers me the most is that I never know if anybody is being straight with me. Say, like, about my record; people say, “Oh, I love your record!” I don’t know if they actually mean that because, you know, everyone wants you, if you’re a rock critic, to say that their band is good or something like that. Except now, what you have on the alternative, is that everybody’s picked up the cue from the English, they’re supposed to be snotty, so they cop this pose of being, “Oh, who needs you? Blah blah blah.” And, like, basically the toughest part is running into people who react in ways that they think they’re supposed to–they’re trying to impress you with how much they like you or what great people they are, or they’re trying to impress you with how much they don’t care, but either way it’s phony. That basically I’d say is, for me anyway, the thing that bugs me the most.
Interviewer: How has the book been selling?
Bangs: Oh, real good, it’s doing great!
Interviewer: Do you have any opportunities–or do you expect to–to be on Merv or Dinah discussing the entire rock scene and what-not?
Bangs: Well, I told them I wanted to be on Joe Franklin, and nothing’s happened yet, but basically it’s been radio.
Interviewer: Do you find yourself at all changing as you become perhaps more of a media personality and less of just a rock critic?
Bangs: I don’t wanna be a media personality. That may seem like a contradiction in terms since I’m doing this interview with you right now, but I just wanna be a good writer, and to the extent that I can keep a low profile and do that, I’ll be happy. Like, I don’t want my picture in People magazine, or even New York Rocker as some guy that’s “on the scene” doing all this garbage. I don’t care about any of that stuff, I just go ahead and do what I do, you know? And I think this whole thing of being a celebrity and a media personality, it’s like, in so many cases it so much tends to eclipse whatever the person might want to do artistically or creatively–it just about disappears, and I think that’s the big trap. Everybody’s a media personality now, you know what I mean?
Interviewer: Like Andy said, everyone’s famous for 15 minutes.
Bangs: Yeah, well I just think it’s a shame old Valerie missed.
Interviewer: One last question, Lester. People that wanted to get into rock writing, rock criticism–youngsters out there, maybe even people ready to give up their present career for another one–what advice would you have for them? If it wasn’t to not get into rock criticism, how would you advise them to go about it?
Bangs: I actually don’t know, because I’m so utterly alienated myself and utterly disgusted to be quite frank that I wonder if I really wanna do anything in the next few years. See, the thing is, everything is turning into People magazine, like all the radio, all the press, all everything is turning into this…even the book industry. I was talking to my agent yesterday, and I said to him, “Do you think it’s gonna reach the point where the only thing you can sell is a celebrity biography that’s just a puff job?” And he said, “I don’t know.” You know? I sit around and wonder if maybe the best thing I could do for myself as a writer would be just to completely get away from all this stuff. [Tape side ends, some of Bangs’s answer gets lost.]…I’m not gonna saw away at my violin here and try and break everybody’s heart, because like I said, I know I’ve got it easy. The fact is, I don’t have to get up in the morning and go work from 9 to 5 in a factory or something. And I do have access, and I do have a lot of things that, you know, nobody should feel sorry for me. But at the same time, everybody I know is just totally alienated and fed up and disgusted with just about everything, and I do know that most of the people in the media that are dispensing this stuff are as alienated from it as the audience is. The audience is just taking it because there’s nothing else being offered. And personally, I’m just wondering when people are gonna just say No! I refuse! I don’t want any anymore.
Interviewer: Lester, I don’t have any more questions. Is there anything I haven’t asked you about, about your book or about your career or your writing in general that you want to bring up?
Bangs: Nah, I’d probably rant and rave on my high horse way past any of those points anyway. [laughs]