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. The music critic Jim DeRogatis called him "America's greatest rock critic".
Bangs was born in Escondido, California. He was 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, also in San Diego County. His early interests and influences ranged from the Beats (particularly William S. Burroughs) and jazz musician John Coltrane and Miles Davis, to comic books and science fiction. He had a connection with The San Diego Door, an underground newspaper of the late 1960s.
Rolling Stone magazine
Bangs became a freelance writer in 1969, 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, if the magazine were to decline to publish the review, that he be given a reason for the decision; no reply was forthcoming, as the magazine did indeed publish the review.
His 1970 review of Black Sabbath's first album in Rolling Stone was scathing, rating them as imitators of the band Cream:
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.
Bangs wrote about the death of Janis Joplin in 1970 from a 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."
In 1973, Jann Wenner fired Bangs from Rolling Stone for "disrespecting musicians" after a particularly harsh review of the group Canned Heat.
Bangs began freelancing for Detroit-based Creem in 1970. In 1971, he wrote a feature for Creem on Alice Cooper, and soon afterward he moved to Detroit. 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 some other writers at Creem began using the term punk rock to designate the genre of 1960s garage bands and 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 that emerged 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, Captain Beefheart, Blondie, Brian Eno, and the New York Dolls years earlier than 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 artists such as Motörhead, Kiss, Judas Priest, and Van Halen.
After leaving Creem in 1976, he wrote for The Village Voice, Penthouse, Playboy, New Musical Express, and many other publications.
Writing in Stereo Review, Bangs described the album Funky Kingston by Toots and the Maytals as "perfection, the most exciting and diversified set of reggae tunes by a single artist yet released".
Bangs died in New York City on April 30, 1982, at the age of 33, of an accidental overdose of dextropropoxyphene (an opioid analgesic), diazepam (a benzodiazepine), and NyQuil.
Bangs's criticism was filled with cultural references, not only to rock music but also to literature and philosophy. He was known for his radical and critical style of working, apparent in this quotation:
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, while the J. Geils Band were playing in concert, Bangs climbed onto the stage, typewriter in hand, and typed a supposed review of the event, in full view of the audience.
In 1979, writing for the Village Voice, Bangs wrote a poignant piece about the White supremacy from a Punk music scene perspective, called "The white noise supremacists".
Bangs was also a musician. 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, Bangs 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 Bangs was talking to guitarist Mickey Leigh, Joey Ramone's brother, the idea for a band named "Birdland" came to fruition. Although they both had their roots in jazz, the two wanted to create an 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 Lester 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 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 the 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 ("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 ("I'm not confused like you, twit. You Lester Bangs wannabe. There's something wrong with you—there's nothing wrong with me.") in the of Montreal song "There is Nothing Wrong With Hating Rock Critics".
- 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".
- 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.
- 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 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. He is also a major character in the 2019 stage musical version.
- In the 1992 movie Singles, also directed by Cameron Crowe, a character is seen reading a collection of Bangs’ reviews on screen.
By Lester Bangs
- Review of The MC5's debut album, Kick Out The Jams – Bangs' first piece for Rolling Stone
- "Where Were You When Elvis Died?" Elvis Presley obituary. The Village Voice, August 29, 1977
- "The Greatest Album Ever Made", Creem magazine (1976) — about the 1975 Lou Reed album Metal Machine Music
- "Stranded," (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).
- How To Be A Rock Critic, play, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Kirk Douglas Theater, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Public Theater, more; 2015-2018.