Why I no longer want to be Lester Bangs
Lester Bangs. Now there was a colorful figure in literary history. I mean, his drug of choice was Romilar! Which is cold medicine. Of all the street drugs to be into in the 60's and 70's, and he picked one they use to make crystal meth.
When he OD'd, there wasn't any blood on the walls. He died from a toxic mixture of Darvon and Valium.
Lester Bangs was an antihero. And every music reviewer who has come after Bangs has wanted to be him.
When I first read about Bangs, I was non-plussed. In Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, he was denigrated all over the place by many of his peers. He was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing a racial epithet that was a reference to the White Panther Party, which was the (mostly) tongue-in-cheek invention of the MC5.
So yeah, Lester Bangs was misunderstood. A lot of people hated him.
That alone should've told me his work would be worth reading. What can I say? I was a slow learner. It took something far more basic to get me reading the classics.
In 2001, I attended the 25th anniversery party for Punk Magazine at CBGB's.
At the time, I had fire-engine red hair. Yes. Like the truck. I stood right out in pictures. Naturally, vanity prompted me to go to the CBGB's website, and try to find photos of yours truly looking pretty at the party.
I'm still almost convinced that I caught a glimpse of myself in the crowd, in case you're wondering. But it's hard to know. I was certainly not the only chick in the room who'd dipped her head into a vat of finger paint.
Anyway, no evidence had been uploaded to prove I'd made the scene. I grew understandably bored. So I migrated through the site's other pages. You know, the ones that would matter to anyone other than me.
The CB's page used to have a famous article by Bangs in its archive.
It was called, Exposing the Gay Mafia. During an era when David Johanssen was dressing up in full drag to get the New York Dolls a record contract, that article pissed a lot of people off.
So I read the article. "Goddamn it," I thought when I'd finished it. "Not a single one of those self-righteous fuckers who are credited with inventing punk rock knew how to take a joke!"
This point would later become further - and more painfully - obvious to me when, at a Television show at Irving Plaza, Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group fame treated me exactly the way people used to treat Bangs.
"Hey, Lenny, how are things with you?" I greeted him.
"Oh, you're from the studio," Lenny said, his myopic gaze clearing slightly with momentary recognition. "They fired you, didn't they?"
Years later, I still can't listen to the Patti Smith Group the same way. Kaye knew that I looked up to him, and he kicked sand in my face. I'll never again speak to a person who's been called "seminal" by anyone, unless I'm getting paid to listen to their pompous musings.
Bangs had to contend with shit like that on a daily basis. And from the people he championed. No wonder he only made it to 33 before he bought the farm.
Here is a really good article about Bangs that isn't too reverent to be readable.
It's great that people love Lester's work. But they love it post-humously, and he can't benefit from that.
Ah, death. The ultimate takeaway.
Fuck that noise.
You should have kept arguing with them, Lester. It's a study in pure irony that Richard Hell is still alive, and you're not. Hell said as much himself, in 2003. He would never have said anything so nice to you when you were kicking. He's admitted that, as well.
Bangs lived an outcast, and he died an outcast. He had a shitty life, and a shitty death. And the music he loved passionately was no substitute for the love, the understanding, the gratitude and the respect that he should have commanded from the people whose work he helped to popularize.
The music business is as vile as it's ever been, and it will continue to be for all time. Because people who work in the music industry want it that way.
That famous Hunter S. Thompson aphorism is still quoted happily by useless industry glad-handing fucks. And they still whore its ethos to promote sub-par music. Which is unforgiveable.
Everyone who has written about music started out with the best of intentions. However. You can't eat intentions, and they won't keep you warm.
Bangs didn't live or die in vain. He left evidence. He changed the way some people thought. Mission accomplished, on that front.
But his legacy has done nothing to chase away the presence of all the pallid, mediocre music that's been sold to the clueless flocks of sheep. No one wants to pick up where Bangs left off. No sane person would subject himself to that kind of abuse. It doesn't even pay the rent. And Bangs couldn't change that. Not for himself, and not for anyone who came after him.
We live in a culture that turns a blind eye to prophets until they become martyrs.
Well, I never want to be a martyr for something as heartbreakingly pointless as the love of good music.
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