Leslie Conway "Lester" Bangs (December 14, 1948 – April 30, 1982) was an American music journalist, critic, author, and musician. He wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone magazines and was known for his leading influence in rock music criticism; Jim DeRogatis has called him "American's greatest rock critic".
Bangs was born in Escondido, California, the son of Norma Belle (née Clifton) and Conway Leslie Bangs, a truck driver. Both of his parents were from Texas: his father from Enloe, and his mother from Pecos County. Norma Belle was a devout Jehovah's Witness. Conway died in a fire when his son was young. When Bangs was 11, he moved with his mother to El Cajon, California.
Rolling Stone magazine
In 1969 Bangs became a freelance writer after reading an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting readers' reviews. His first piece was a negative review of the MC5 album Kick Out The Jams, which he sent to Rolling Stone with a note requesting that if the magazine were to pass on publishing the review, that he receive a reason for their decision; however, no reply was forthcoming as the magazine did indeed publish the review.
Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence. Vocals are sparse, most of the album being filled with plodding bass lines over which the lead guitar dribbles wooden Claptonisms from the master's tiredest Cream days. They even have discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitized speedfreaks all over each other's musical perimeters yet never quite finding synch—just like Cream! But worse.
(Rolling Stone later rated the same album to be on their 500 Greatest Albums of all time, at number 243.)
Bangs wrote about Janis Joplin's 1970 death by drug overdose, "It's not just that this kind of early death has become a fact of life that has become disturbing, but that it's been accepted as a given so quickly."
Bangs began freelancing for Detroit-based Creem in 1970. In 1971, he had written a feature for Creem on Alice Cooper, and soon afterward he moved to the Motor City. Named Creem's editor in 1971, Bangs fell in love with Detroit, calling it "rock's only hope," and remained there for five years.
During the early 1970s, Bangs and certain other writers at Creem, began using the word "punk rock" to designate the genre of 60s garage bands, as well as more contemporary acts, such as MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. Their writings would provide some of the conceptual framework for the later punk and new wave movements which would emerge in New York, London, and elsewhere later in the decade. They would be quick to pick up on these new movements at their inception and provide extensive coverage of the phenomenon. Bangs was enamored of the noise music of Lou Reed, and Creem gave significant exposure to artists such as Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Blondie, and The New York Dolls years before the mainstream press. Bangs wrote the essay/interview "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves" about Reed in 1975. Creem was also among the earliest publications to give sizable coverage to hard rock and metal acts such as Motörhead, Kiss, Judas Priest, and Van Halen.
Bangs' criticism was filled with cultural references, not only to rock music but literature and philosophy as well. He was known for his radical and critical style of working, apparent in this quote:
Well basically I just started out to lead [an interview] with the most insulting question I could think of. Because it seemed to me that the whole thing of interviewing as far as rock stars and that was just such a suck-up. It was groveling obeisance to people who weren't that special, really. It's just a guy, just another person, so what?
On one occasion, typewriter in hand, he climbed onto the stage while the J. Geils Band were playing in concert, and typed a supposed review of the event, in full view of the audience.
Bangs was also a musician in his own right. In 1976, he and Peter Laughner recorded an acoustic improvisation in the Creem office. The recording included covers/parodies of songs like "Sister Ray" and "Pale Blue Eyes", both by the Velvet Underground.
In 1977, Lester recorded, as a solo artist, a 7" vinyl single named "Let It Blurt/Live", mixed by John Cale and released in 1979.
In 1977, at the famous New York City nightclub, CBGB's, while Lester talking to guitarist Mickey Leigh, Joey Ramone's brother, the idea for band named "Birdland" came to fruition. Although they both had their roots in jazz, the two wanted to create old school rock & roll group. Leigh brought in his post-punk band, The Rattlers (David Merrill on bass; Matty Quick on drums), and cut "Birdland" with Bangs. The recording took place at the under renovation Electric Lady studios. Bassist David Merrill, who was working on the construction of the studio, had the keys to the building and they snuck the band in on April Fool’s Day, 1979 for an impromptu and somewhat illegal late night recording session. The end result was a completely uncut and un-dubbed recording that displayed completely raw music. Birdland broke up within two months of this rare recording (in which the cassette tape from the session became the master, mixed by Ed Stasium and released by Leigh only in 1986).
In 1980 Lester Bangs traveled to Austin, Texas, and met a surf/punk rock group "The Delinquents". In early December of the same year, they recorded an album as "Lester Bangs and the Delinquents", entitled Jook Savages on the Brazos, released on following year.
In 1990 the Mekons released the EP F.U.N. 90 with Bangs' declamation in the song "One Horse Town".
In popular culture
- Bangs is mentioned ("Hangin' out with Lester Bangs you all") in the Ramones song "It's Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)" on the 1981 album Pleasant Dreams.
- Bangs is mentioned in the 1987 R.E.M. song "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", along with Lenny Bruce, Leonid Brezhnev and Leonard Bernstein, all of whom share the initials 'LB'.
- Bangs is the subject of the song by Scott B. Sympathy "Lester Bangs Stereo Ghost" on the 1992 album Drinking With The Poet
- Bangs is mentioned ("They kept alive the great casino sound, for Leslie Conway Bangs") in the Tullycraft song "If You Take Away the Make-Up (Then the Vampires They Will Die)" on the 2007 album Every Scene Needs a Center.
- Bangs is mentioned ("The only thing I want to save is the image on your face when I show up at your prom with ghost of Lester Bangs; they yell for 'rock'!") in the Dillinger Four song "Our Science Is Tight.
- Along with artist Dori Seda, Bangs is the subject of Bruce Sterling's 1989 alternate history short story, "Dori Bangs," in which the two meet and have a relationship.
- In his 2012 biography of David Foster Wallace, D. T. Max writes, "Wallace admired Bangs's exultant prose, which probably came closer to the way Wallace talked than any other writing." Wallace and his co-author Mark Costello dedicated their book Signifying Rappers to Bangs.
- Excerpts from an interview with Lester Bangs appeared in the last two episodes of Tony Palmer's seventeen-episode television documentary entitled All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music.
- In the 2000 movie Almost Famous, directed by Cameron Crowe (himself a former writer for Rolling Stone), Bangs is portrayed by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as a mentor to the film's protagonist William Miller. Hoffman himself had a drug related death.
- Bangs' formative years are the subject of a documentary, (director: Raul Sandelin), released in 2013.
By Lester Bangs
- of The MC5's debut album, Kick Out The Jams – Bangs' first piece for Rolling Stone
- Elvis Presley obituary. The Village Voice, August 29, 1977
- Creem magazine (1976) — about the 1975 Lou Reed album Metal Machine Music
- (1979) — about the 1968 album Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison
- Blondie (Fireside Book, 1980)
- Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, collected writings, Greil Marcus, ed. Anchor Press, 1988. (ISBN 0-679-72045-6)
- Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, collected writings, John Morthland, ed. Anchor Press, 2003. (ISBN 0-375-71367-0)
About Lester Bangs
- Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic, biography, Jim Derogatis. Broadway Books, 2000. (ISBN 0-7679-0509-1).
Works citing Lester Bangs
- Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, biography, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Penguin Books, 1997. (ISBN 0-14-026690-9).