It’a a bit of a challenge to write about Lester Bangs. He was a hugely influential rock critic who died young, and the people he inspired can be protective of his legacy. He was opinionated, sometimes to a fault, and not shy about telling people that he didn’t like them. He also had a real respect for rock music and its potential, that respect being driven by his love for music that came from the gut rather than the marketing plan.
Lester had written for Rolling Stone for a number of years but was fired by Jann Wenner in 1973 for giving a Canned Heat album too scathing a review; Detroit’s CREEM magazine was more receptive to his style. By 1976 he was freelancing and living in New York City, watching all those CBGB bands come up with their own rules. They had a similar energy to some of the 60’s garage bands that Lester so dearly loved. Over the next couple of years he would write about them for Village Voice, Punk Magazine, and New Musical Express. He soon had enough connections and friendships had been made to tap some shoulders and get in the studio.
So what we have here is Lester’s first officially released single, released in 1979 but recorded in 1977. Jay Dee Daugherty (Patti Smith Group, The Church) produced and drummed, and Robert Quine (Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Lou Reed) played guitar. Mixing fell to Spy Records and Velvet Underground founder John Cale. Bangs and Quine were both enamored of The Velvet Underground (Quine’s bootleg recordings of VU shows would eventually be officially released on Polydor) so that was a pretty big deal. The result?
Interesting. “Let It Blurt” is a little hard to get a grip on, its musical and lyrical rhythms tumbling along in their own weird way. The song reminds me of a lot of music I’ve heard by The Fall—I respect its audacity, but I wouldn’t rush to give it a second listen.
The B side, though is something else altogether. “Live” is a steady but impassioned plea to appreciate life while you’re living. Bangs is no great singer, but he gets his point across in a spoken/singing style that works well for this kind of New Wave/Punk/Garage dirge. the interplay between Quine and guitarist Jody Harris at the 2:20 mark is fantastic.
In 1980, some time spent in Austin found Lester collaborating with The Delinquents. The result pops with catchy, nervous energy. Here’s “Fade Away.”
That was a re-recording of a song he’d done in 1979 with Birdland, a band lead by Joey Ramone’s brother, Mickey Leigh. Both collaborations were released in 1981, which caused a little confusion over which project actually happened first. I like the Delinquents version better, but the Birdland album definitely had some strong work. “There’s A Man In There” has the narrative pull of a weird crime novel.
And then there’s “Kill Him Again,” which has Lester sounding more like a real frontman than he ever had before. Good, solid rock and roll, with heart and guts.
Bangs died in 1982 from a fatal overdose of Darvon, Valium, and cough medicine. He would sometimes drink two or three bottles of cough syrup a day, apparently. It’s always sad when talented people die before their time, but Lester would not have wanted florid eulogies from his fans or his peers. Or at least that’s what one gathers from this 1972 review of Janis Joplin’s posthumous album, In Concert:
I don’t know which is worse, the cannibalistic impulse of the public and the pop music industry which mutually encourage artists in disintegration because that’s the flash and we really do think that someone else can live our lives and deaths for us, or the sickly, not to say sickening, spate of “Eulogies” and “Memorials” and “Remembrances” which sweep the pop press as soon as another star done gone. But perhaps they are the same thing.
One wonders what Bangs would have had to say about the repackaged, reformatted, bonus-tracked reissue of Nirvana’s In Utero that just came out. I don’t want to presume to know what his take would have been, but I bet it would have been worth reading.