Our Winter 2023 issue is dedicated to America’s greatest rock critic and our former editor, Lester Bangs, for what would have been his 75th birthday. More on that below, but it’s important to us that you know that you can still pick up a collectible hard copy of the mag here and subscribe to 1) never miss another issue and 2) access everything Bangs wrote for this rag in our archive.
Lester Bangs was a self-determined savant, so destined for genius that he invented entire constellations where a man of the reasonable talents it takes to be the Best Rock Writer Ever might be a star. Lester Bangs was an invention of the critical intelligentsia; the Illuminatic losers (and Patti Smith) who spent their days selling Mink DeVille’s reputation door-to-door, looked like Elvis Costello in their dreams, and needed a saint/scapegoat for their nascent profession so badly that they deified the first of their ilk to do what rockers do every day (die). Lester Bangs was a clown, in the tragicomic sense. Like Pagliacci if Pagliacci’s doctor was also Joey Ramone’s stepfather, and the great clown found a workaround—from seeing himself every night—by imbibing enough Romilar cough syrup and root beer to ensure the kind of blackouts that made every morning in the bathroom mirror as thrilling as a curtain rising for the first time.
Lester Bangs was also a moralist. He was, as Maria Bustillos wrote in The New Yorker (a website for people who are new to yorking), a moralist with a “bone-deep love of the truth.” So let’s not start this devotional to the man with a lie. CREEM had been planning on some sort of tribute to Lester Bangs, with what would have been his 75th birthday as a peg, since the magazine was resurrected. We hadn’t decided what this tribute might consist of, but it was assumed it would probably be a medium-sized section of hagiography and/or slander; a loving appreciation, but not so googly-eyed that anyone would think our language and politics had been trapped in amber since 1976. It was going to be effusive, affecting, and roughly 8 to 12 pages. Along the way, in some sort of financial snafu that the powers-that-be have determined to be none of middle management’s business, some money went wherever it is money goes. Hopefully to sex workers, but probably to lawyers. So CREEM needed to fill some pages, and we needed to do so without going over a budget that had gone from Chris Farley to David Spade seemingly overnight. As we’re constitutionally opposed to asking the living to work for free, the obvious solution was to expand the Lester Bangs section. After all, we do love the man. He is inarguably one of the architects of CREEM’s whole ethos and reason for being. We still read his writing for edification and pleasure. If the comments that readers leave on Instagram (at least those left by the strange angry men who think that being trapped in amber is preferable to succumbing to the “woke mind virus” that’s keeping us from putting The Nuge back on the cover) are any indication, it’s not like having him in the magazine could make the writing any worse.
We’re all sorted now, thanks for asking. Loan sharks apparently satisfied, coke dealers once again texting us “what’s good” during high holidays, and the staff’s shared Paramount+ account has been turned back on just in time for season 15 of Ink Master. And it’s all thanks to Lester Bangs. Our Jesus and Casper. Our Heathcliff and Ghost Rider. CREEM’s own Frankenstein monster, returning the favor to a fresh generation of grave robbers. The dead don’t do much, but they do work cheap.
Of course, the dead do plenty. They do so at variable expense to the living, with an agency that skirts the line between caregiver and debt collector.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the existence of ghosts or angels, only the willfully dissociative could deny that the air around us is thick with all the grief, motivational baggage, and repercussions that the dead continue to slap us around with. In the case of Lester Bangs—a.k.a. the Patron Saint of Rock Journalism, a.k.a. Lou Reed’s Shadow Self (and Vice Versa), a.k.a. the Second or Third Critic to Use the Terms “Punk” and/or “Heavy Metal” in Regards to Music, a.k.a. the Critic Your Parents Have Heard of—his spirit works overtime. Bangs is simultaneously inspiration and oppressive influence; chiding ethicist and cartoonish aesthete; guiding light and cautionary tale (as I write this, there’s a mustachioed whisper in my ear that’s chastising me for using two clichés in a row).
Setting aside the obvious negatives in chasing a Bangsian phantom (the slurs, the early death, etc.), there remains the danger of caricature. There’s pressure, despite what Lester Bangs explicitly warned against, to write in a “CREEM Spirit.” That pressure comes from above, sure, from the readers, for sure, but mostly from within; who wouldn’t want to write in the spirit of the best? But the funny thing about trying to write in any spirit is that you’re encouraging that old maxim about how growing old is like a corpse growing inside of you. Ghosts are cool, but why speed up the process? You may end up sounding like Lester Bangs or you may end up sounding like Vincent Price. Most likely, you’ll sound like the Lou Reed condemnation of Bangs; how, on his worst days, Bangs was a bad imitation of himself.
Except, not being Lester Bangs to begin with, you won’t even be that. So you’ll have no choice but to go out at night, to bars with names taken from Talking Heads songs, trolling every low-rent Lou Reed rip-off you encounter, hoping you might find an equally unoriginal jerk-off who might hate you enough—while sharing your love for living as a wax museum exhibit—to give your bullshit pantomime an echo of meaning. Honestly, at a certain juncture, it’s less work to just be yourself. If loyalty to the “CREEM Spirit” requires a smidgen of Bangs pastiche—or if you believe that it’s better to admit to and indulge in his indelible influence, rather than suppress what’s bound to bubble up eventually—you can always throw in a couple lines about how Lulu was Lou Reed’s best album.
The dead don’t do much, but they do work cheap
As his reputation grew even more outsize after his death, Bangs’ influence beyond his acolytes waned. CREEM kept up a brave face, and various zine writers championed bands primitive enough to make the Stooges seem (more) like King Crimson, But overall, in a scenario akin to what South Park encountered during the Trump years, rock ’n’ roll finally got as populist and unselfconsciously thick-witted as what Lester Bangs had seemed to wish for when he championed bands like Black Oak Arkansas. And the result was...kind of gross. Even before his death, Bangs bemoaned how little the 1982 rock ’n’ roll landscape seemed to contain. He couldn’t know or admit it, but new wave and hair metal were the logical monkey’s-paw conclusion to much of what he’d championed. Now he’d have to live with it and be content listening to the same Blasters cassette over and over for the next 10 years.
Also, recall that the ’80s were the decade that saw the full-ponytailed flowering of fatuous access journalism; endless glossy and quisling-ite collaboration masked as “can you believe we made it this far???” smug-survivor-guilt chummery; a Cadillac with a “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” sticker affixed to its bumper, being eaten by an even larger Cadillac. If Bangs had been employable, one shudders at what he’d have to write to make that happen.
In 1990, under pressure from their label to make some “fun” music—that people other than rock critics and associate professors at the University of Cowpunk might enjoy—the Mekons (the country & western & anarchism band that Bangs had once called, correctly, as far as that goes, “BETTER THAN THE BEATLES”) added a recording of the critic singing Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” to not one but two songs (“One Horse Town” and “One Horse Dub”) of a six-song EP. In doing so, the Mekons got it exactly right: They put the dead man that they loved to work. Would Bangs have thought F.U.N. ’90 to be a worthy vehicle for his expansive gifts? Beyond ego gratification (he tried real hard to be a singer of a beloved punk rock band), maybe not. The EP is a mellow, haunted affair; more Horace Andy’s Dance Hall Style than The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! But by 1990, the whole “death of the author” thing was eight-years literal, and F.U.N. ’90 did get the Mekons kicked off the major label that never loved them right. If that isn’t true to Lester Bangs’ spirit, nothing is.
By the time grunge rolled around, Bangs’ bonhomie was still out of fashion. Not to say that writers in the ’90s were stinting on the whiskey and heroin, but it was largely seen as gauche to admit to going shot for shot with a Stone Temple Pilot or Hole-r. After all, part of the shtick was that everyone was having a terrible time, operating from undiagnosed trauma. Which had always been true, but having the artists spell that out in every pre-chorus kind of eliminated the need for any Lester Bangs-esque “The Clash Are Just Like Us... Disappointing on a Human Level”-type reveal. Actually having fun doing drugs was something that yuppies and members of Mötley Crüe did. And neither camp was super interested in partying with writers of criticism.
When earnest centering of the artist failed to stop 9/11, VICE happened. That magazine took Lester Bangs’ steez—of treating musicians as no better than any other jerk—to an admirably cartoonish height, and twisted the knife at both ends by explicitly framing the very act of reviewing albums as a hopelessly uncool anachronism; something to be done using as few words as possible, with either those words ideally being non sequitur or the review being dissociatively transgressive enough to communicate to the reader that the pseudonymous critic was only reviewing albums in the critic’s downtime between eight-ball consumption and endless rounds of giving and receiving oral sex.
Concurrently, other early-21st-century music publications were mainly functioning as museum curators, either cataloging drum ’n’ bass deejays like they were an alien species, writing about the Strokes through the prism of the individual writer’s pro-/anti-Bangs historical neurosis (i.e., opinions regarding Is This It largely determined by how the writer was treated in high school and/or Williamsburg), or generally treating the genre of rock ’n’ roll as valid insofar as it resulted in post-rock/Kid A.
It was around this time that the bottom fell out of the print and music industries, rendering moot once and for all the question of whether any critics were influential. In the face of the vast wilderness of possibility known as the internet, where all human knowledge was accessible, some hedge fund manager’s wayward child decided that no human is capable of reading more than a thousand words. Also, from 2010 onward, there were to be no more than 20 to 30 famous musicians, total, whom all music writers were to cover incessantly, copy-and-pasting the same questions and answers, with occasional narrative shifts congruous to shifting political/therapeutic norms, with the penalty of not writing about these 20 to 30 artists being public hassle, excommunication, and eventually death. As the formerly endearingly sociopathic community known as “music fans” gave way to “stans” (the new term representing a real-world interpolation of Lester Bangs’ old “What if Idi Amin really loved Jethro Tull?” riff), that penalty-of-death clause was extended to include those who did write about the famous as well.
In Let It Blurt, his biography of Lester Bangs, Jim DeRogatis implies that Bangs and his cohorts saw the imminent decline of music writing beginning in 1974, with the founding of People magazine. The magazine’s name makes blaming it for the end of civilization feel a bit narratively slick, but snobbery doesn’t make it wrong. Didn’t Patti Smith, the critic/genius who turned on Lester Bangs for failing to kiss Radio Ethiopia’s ring, say that “People has the power” (or something to that effect)? And Mick Jagger sang, during one his periodic forays into only being partially full of shit: “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’/ When after all, it was you and me.” Considering how many music writers think they deserve more respect for barely rewording press releases, and how many clicks long-form music journalism gets on average, “you and me” is as good an answer to who killed this particular American Camelot, the Golden Age of Rock and Roll Criticism, as any.
(Well, maybe more “you” than “me”...the only Kennedy I was ever within spitting distance of was Ted, the Bushmills Brahmin whose crapulence rendered him bulletproof. And ever since I read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung as a small-town boy of 15, only knowing that Bangs was important because the back cover blurbs told me so, I’ve known that worthwhile ideas, even/especially ideas devoted to puerile grunt rawk, benefit from having the space required to get wild and free like the summer wind. And since then, I’ve developed a taste for uppers. Thanks, Lester Bangs! For making me innocent!)
Fun fact: People magazine’s founding managing editor, Richard Stolley, made his name by being the journalist who acquired the Zapruder film. Pretty interesting! I’m not saying that JFK’s assassination, the lyrics to “Sympathy for the Devil,” Lester Bangs becoming disillusioned with rock journalism, and the fact that I can’t get anyone to pay me $500 for a 4,000-word review of the new Turnstile album are connected. I’m just saying that’s a lot of jet fuel for one man to be flying around with.
In the pitch for an unpublished book about the kids in America, again as documented by Jim DeRogatis, Bangs wrote, “What’s really interesting about the whole generation of American youth that grew up in the seventies is that they don’t know they’re alienated. Where pop icons used to represent an ideal you would like to be, most of them today represent various avenues of escape from personhood and the painful necessity of emotion that goes with it. The stars are blanks, and blank is better because feeling has come to be automatically associated with pain....” Just how prescient these lines seem probably depends on how self-evident one finds recurring patterns, especially vis-à-vis the perpetual grasping of the dead-eyed youth. But reading them, it occurs that Lester Bangs’ spirit may be omnipresent, not due to any overarching or pernicious influence, but rather because his spirit was essentially attuned with the times he lived in—times that are, regardless of surface differences, similar to ours. For good or ill, what was true then might be true now, with the spirit of Lester Bangs riding those persistent truths symbiotically, like one of those little birds that hang out on the snoots of crocodiles. Life can be alienating! Stars are like us; they fucking suck! Richard Hell doubts that it’s good to be alive! Lester Bangs disagrees! If not in practice, then in theory! As befitting America’s Greatest Rock Critic!
After all, at the end of one of the Lester vs. Lou Debates, Lou Reed’s road manager Barbara Fulk leaned over to Bangs and asked, “Do you really think it’s going to get any better?”
Bangs replied, “Sure,” clearly not believing it in the slightest. Then he kept going.