I first met Lester Bangs via the telephone. I was a bored teenager. Growing up in South Florida in the early 70’s, there weren’t many people who liked the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. I read Creem and Rock Scene and zines like Who Put The Bomp, Back Door Man, Denim Delinquent, The Rock Marketplace, Gulcher, Punk (the original Punk from Buffalo which predated the New York mag by two years). I used to call the Creem offices in Michigan around midnight every couple of weeks. Lester was always there, usually speeding away, editing and writing. Sometimes he was drunk, or high on cough syrup. I remember him playing me a test pressing of Patti Smith’s Horses over the phone in its entirety.
On my first trip to New York City, the spring of ’77, I’d just turned eighteen and I was staying at a loft down on Warren Street (The Home For Teenage Dirt said the sign in the window) which was inhabited by Miriam Linna (a pen pal from Ohio who had moved to New York City earlier and extended an invitation to crash with her if I ever managed to make it north, today she runs the Norton Records empire with her husband Billy Miller, both play in the A-Bones, currently touring Europe), Lydia Lunch and the late Bradly Field (who would become the drummer for Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and the Cramps’ road manager). The block was empty, there was no such thing as Tribeca back then. The only other inhabitant of the block was Jody Harris of the Contortions who had a loft in the next building and it was used as a rehearsal space for many bands including the Contortions, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Lester Bangs’ first band. It was also the only place to take a shower.
After arriving, I met Lydia and Todd Abramson (now owner of Maxwells and Tel*Star Records, he was fifteen at the time and also on his first trip to NYC), the others were still at work when I arrived. After about an hour I went outside to look around, took a seat on the stoop and lit a cigarette. Who came walking down the street but Richard Hell, Robert Quine and Lester Bangs. I introduced myself and presented them all with copies of my fanzine– New Order (Hell shared the cover with Patti Smith, I’d done a phone interview with him). Later that night, after catching two sets each by the Cramps and the Ramones at CBGB, Bradly dragged me to 24 hour bar on 9th St. between First Ave and Ave. A called the Kiwi Club. Lester was there, we were all already plastered but we got considerably drunker, staying long after sunrise. So began my short friendship with Lester Bangs.
Shortly after that ’77 visit, I moved to New York, and after a season spent couch surfing settled into a tiny $175 a month studio apartment on E. 1oth Street between 1st and 2nd. It was ground level and in the front of the building, so anyone who cared could tell if I was home or not by simply looking in the window. Since Lester often got drunk and lost his keys, he was a frequent overnight visitor, I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t home like most of his friends had learned to do in those situations. Even sober, Lester could wreck your house in minutes, but drunk, forget it, by morning every book and record in the place would be out of their jacket and on the floor. The entire tube of toothpaste would be coating the bathroom, toilet paper all over the place. It would take days to get the place back into a reasonable order. The first time he came over he gave me “the Sister Ray test”. That is, when ever Lester went to somebody’s house, he’d take out their copy of White Light/White Heat (I don’t think Lester knew anyone except his girlfriend who didn’t own a copy of WL/WH) and check the grooves to see how worn out Sister Ray was. Mine had been played to death. He explained that everyone owned a copy of WL/WH because it was cool to own it, but very few people actually listened to it. He told me that I was okay, I’d actually played Sister Ray enough times to call myself a real Velvet Underground fan.
Too bad he didn’t live long enough to hear the Sweet Sister Ray bootleg.
Lester was not a good drunk, so I often saw him at his absolute worst. He could also be a great guy, he could be very generous and thoughtful. After Country: America’s Biggest Music came out, Lester knew I loved the book and made it a point to take me to Nick Tosches’ place and introduce me to him, a rather fateful introduction since I would later meet my wife through Nick. When I became the music editor of a rag called the East Village Eye, Lester volunteered to write a column (for free yet!)– the Scorn Pages. Unfortunately the idiot editor– Leonard Abrams decided he didn’t want a column by Lester Bangs and cut Lester’s first contribution down to one paragraph and ran it on the letters page (“I invented punk….”). I was very embarrassed by Abrams rejection of Lester’s offer, but Lester was quite understanding and didn’t blame me. Needless to say, I quit as music editor, although I wrote a column in the Eye for many years (often sharing a page with Cookie Mueller who wrote the health column!).
Lester could also be an asshole and Lester’s final years were tough ones for him. He had burned himself out as a rock writer but couldn’t seem sell (or even write) anything else. He was always broke and his phone was shut off a few times. A soft touch, I paid his phone bill off at least three times in his final year.
When it came to finding things to write about, it didn’t help that after the initial break through, punk became new wave which was just as lame as the shit it was supposed to replace. Even Iggy and Lou Reed were churning out awful records. I think by the end he was coming around to my (and Quine’s) way of thinking– that is, who cares about this new crap, there’s tons of old records to be found that we never heard, who could give a fuck about the Gang Of Four after hearing Hasil Adkins’ She Said or Esquerita’s Rockin’ The Joint?
Lester couldn’t get a decent book deal although he churned out proposals weekly. When he did get a deal, to write a bio of Blondie, the publishers fucked it up, removing all the quotation marks among other bad editing decisions, when they were through with it, it was barely readable, but desperate for cash he helped Paul Nelson write a book on Rod Stewart for the same idiots**.
Lester always had girl problems, and for a guy so unforgiving in others (he hated anyone who he suspected “wanted to be a rock star”, which of course is what everyone including himself really wanted to be), he was surprisingly thin skinned. When an escort service that a friend of his worked for informed him that none of the girls were willing to service him anymore he was quite hurt. When I suggested he pay more attention to his personal hygiene (bathing was not one of his pleasures), he got quite upset. His apartment was the filthiest place I’d seen since leaving the Florida trailer camps of my youth, although oddly enough when he finally cleaned the place up a bit, he died soon after. Perhaps the germs were keeping him alive. Deep down, I think he had a misogynist streak in him that surfaced after the fourth drink. I’ve seen him be brutal to women he’d had one night stands with. In print he called himself a “feminist”and made a big deal such things, but in real life he was about as sensitive as Led Zeppelin’s road crew.
Post-Creem Lester was really floundering about for things to write about. His main outlet at the time was the Village Voice. His best piece for the Voice was about Otis Rush’s Cobra sides which had just been re-issued by Flyright. The worst was a big story about racism in punk rock, of which there was very little. One of those he accused of being a racist was Miriam Linna (because of a photo I ran in New Order of Miriam and a pal in front of some weird Nazi headquarters. It was obvious the photo was a goof, like trying to get close enough to a bear without getting bit by it). In reality, Lester was pissed at Miriam because Kicks mag (which she and Billy edited, still the greatest fanzine of all time) had rejected an article he wrote about No Wave. No way in hell is Miriam any sort of racist and Lester knew it (if you don’t believe me ask Andre Williams, Rudy Ray Moore, the Mighty Hannibal, or any of the other black artists she’s helped over the years). Lester later confessed to me that he thought it was the worst article he ever wrote and regretted the whole thing, but since the piece not only ran on the cover of the Voice (which everyone read back then), it was reprinted in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and Miriam’s had to live with this accusation for all these years. He also accused Punk’s Legs McNeil and John Holmstron of racism because at a party at Lester’s place they didn’t like the Otis Redding record he was playing (one of them referred to it as “disco shit”). I know them both, again, I’ve never heard a racist murmur from either. Keep in mind, Lester was known for throwing around what is today called “the N word”. The most famous photo of Lester is Kate Simon’s portrait of him wearing a shirt that read: “Last Of The White Niggers”. I saw the way black people looked at him when he wore that shirt, and I’m amazed he wasn’t murdered. If I was black, I’d have thrown him a beating. I was at the party in question and one thing Lester left out was when Lester tried to get James Wolcott to get up and dance. Wolcott sniffed his nose at the turntable and quipped, “I don’t like black music”. That doesn’t make him a racist, but the way he said it left little doubt in my mind that he thought it was the sound of a lower breed of human. But Lester was a bit of a coward in that way, he’d have never attacked James Wolcott, who could have torn Lester a new asshole in the press, so he picked on Miriam, who had no way of fighting back, even though she was innocent of Lester’s ridiculous charge. Enough on that subject, I’ve kept my mouth shut for over thirty years and I’ll keep it shut now that I’ve said what I have to say. No offence to Wolcott who I don’t even know (that party was the only time I ever remember meeting him). That’s just how I remember it.
Getting back to Lester …..
After Let It Blurt, he kept making music, forming the group Birdland with Mickey Leigh (Joey Ramone’s brother), and they played around for a year or two. Lester wasn’t much of a rock’n’roll front man but he wrote good songs. He was extremely hurt when they threw him out of the group and changed their name to the Rattlers. He went to Austin, Texas for a bit (he even considered moving there) and came back with a country tinged record he recorded down there with a group called the Delinquents– Jook Savages On The Brazos
. I think it’s a pretty good record, the ominous Kill Him Again
and the Birdland leftover I’m In Love With My Walls
He claimed that Porter Wagner loved them. There’s one cover on the LP– a version of Dale Hawkins’ Grandma’s House
to which he added some new lyrics: “Old Black Joe lived all alone/never saw him at the store/burned him ’til he was just bones/and burned him just a little more”, giving the song an entirely different feeling from the original, to say the least.
These days Lester Bangs is something of a star. Jim Derogtis’ biography Let It Blurt
will tell you all the facts, but it’s missing something, it doesn’t really capture Lester’s sense of humor, reading it, I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about Lester, but it just doesn’t seem all that much like the Lester I knew. The one who broke my copy of the second Band album when I put it on one morning when we both woke up with bad hangovers. The two volumes of his writing– Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung
and Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste
(awful title, no?) are certainly worth reading, between them there’s probably 85% of his best writing, but why didn’t they just release Lester’s own version of P.R. & C.D. that he had edited for a German publisher? The former contains the two things he told me he wished he’d never written (the Racism in Punk piece and his description of Lou Reed’s transsexual friend from his third Creem Lou Reed interview). Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Lester in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous
was so ridiculous I’m at a loss for words. It’s much like the concert scenes in said flick, can you imagine a 70’s rock concert without a cloud of pot smoke hovering over the audience? Hoffman’s Lester was like the concert hall without the pot smoke. Sanitized and smoke free, for the good little 21st century consumer fascists. Lester as the conscience of the record industry? If it wasn’t so stupid, I’d bitch slap Cameron Crowe (who only got work because he liked the worst shit like the Eagles and never wrote a bad word about anyone).
The last time I saw Lester I was selling promo LP’s out on Astor Place, he bought two copies of Metal Machine Music from me and we made plans to get together and play records later that week. He had borrowed a pile of records and books and I wanted to get them back.* Two days later he was dead, the autopsy said he overdosed on Darvon, which I didn’t think was possible.
I’ve eaten bottles of that shit and barely gotten a buzz. Lester had awful taste in drugs.
He had a strange knot on his head and he thought the cough syrup was making it go away. In reality it was making it bigger.
I have pretty much refused to talk about Lester since he died (although I was interviewed by Derogtis, I don’t think he used anything I said), his legacy now in the hands of a strange combination of those he loved the most and those he despised the most. Now I’ve said my piece and I’ll keep my trap shut. It’s been almost thirty years now, and I still miss the big goofball.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine Lester in the modern world. I remember the night Reagan was elected, we watched Andy Griffith in Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd
, and I predicted it was the beginning of the end for America. I think I was right. The national 21 year old drinking age did more to kill rock’n’roll than anything else. Bangs died before MTV, Giuliani, Bush-Cheney, yuppies, cellphones, blackberries, and the Internet. Lester didn’t even like electric typewriters, I just don’t think Twitter would have done much for him. Lester died because rock’n’roll was the only thing that kept him alive, and when it died so did Lester Bangs. When Quine was alive we often would often ask each other– “What do you think Lester would have thought of that”?
Now Lester and Quine can look down on me and ask each other, why is that idiot still alive?
Addendum: Some interesting downloads of Lester jamming with the late Peter Laughner (Rocket From The Tombs/Pere Ubu) can be found here
* I never got my books and records back, although I’ve replaced ’em all except the dust jacket for Persecuted Prophets (a book about snake handling Pentecostal cults in Kentucky). However, Quine gave me Lester’s bound edition of all the Creem mags he edited (in an Easy Rider binder) and a big bag of cassettes, Lester doing interviews, recording phone conversations, jamming with ZZ Top, etc. Unfortunately the bag smelled like Lester’s apartment so I sealed it up in a plastic bag and ten years later when I opened it, it still stunk like hell. So this little dweeb named Rob O’Conner who did a one shot Lester zine called Throat Culture offered to transfer them to a master reel and give them back. Or give me a smell free copy, or something like that.
Needless to say I never heard from him again. Some day Rob O’Conner will turn a corner and find me there waiting for him….hope you have dental insurance Rob.
** Addendum #2: I think I’m the only person who read Rock Gommarah, the book he co-authored with Michael Ochs that never came out, that liked it. I remember the highlights being an interview with Sherrif Tex Davis who managed Gene Vincent and some funny interviews with Hank Ballard. Where is that manuscript today? If no publisher wants it can’t it just be put online as a pdf. file?