Lester Bangs was born 13 December 1948
in Escondido, California
; his parents actually named him Leslie Conway Bangs, after his father Conway Leslie Bangs. (Despite misinterpretations of the family tree
shown in Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic
, Lester was not a product of cousin marriage
; however, his mother's son from her first marriage, Ray, married his father's niece Nina, and Ray's sister Ann married Nina's brother Ray, leading to the children of those two marriages being cousin
s two different ways). Conway's mother was a Jehovah's Witness
, and though Conway was not himself a member of the religion, he married his mother's widow
ed friend and fellow Jehovah's Witness
Norma Belle Clifton (Catching), who had three grown children from her marriage to the late Ben Catching. The Bangs family and their religious
fellows formed a tightly intertwined group. However, Conway Bangs was a drinker who went on occasional binge
s where he didn't come home for days. Norma was forgiving, but there was tension between the couple with their different beliefs.
Les acquired a permanent bump on his forehead as a result of a fall in toddlerhood, but was generally healthy. He learned to read early, and it was suggested that he skip a grade, but his mother, who didn't value education other than the ability to read the Bible, declined the opportunity. Due to his religion, he was also not supposed to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and he often helped his mother with her proselytization and distribution of religious materials, while his father waited in the car. Les idolized his father, and it's not surprising that he picked up skepticism from him. Les started to rebel early -- he was a big reader of comic books and science fiction which his mother disapproved of, and a music fan early on as well, particularly of jazz during his younger years.
In early August 1957, while Les was at his grandparents' ranch for the summer, Conway Bangs died in a fire. How it started is not known -- most relatives thought Conway fell asleep or passed out with a cigarette burning, but a few theorized that Conway had angered someone enough to drive them to arson. After years of hearing about the fires awaiting the damned, thinking of his father's death particularly bothered Les, and the lack of grieving from his family -- who felt that Conway was with God and there was nothing to be sad about -- bothered him. The next few years were very dark for Les, who hid out with reading and music. He was a vulnerable child, and when he was eleven, an older man took advantage of this, luring him into a trailer with comics and money and having sex with him. One more difficult thing for Les to cope with.
In 1960, Les and his mother moved from Escondido to El Cajon in the same state, where Norma's son Ben Catching Jr. lived. This allowed Les contact with his nephew, Ben Jr.'s son Ben Catching III, who was actually four years older. Les and Ben listened to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus and read Catcher In The Rye and On The Road together, cultivating a beatnik image, and around this time "Leslie" started signing himself "Lester." He would use this name for the rest of his life. Lester's star subjects were English and Speech/Drama. In high school he wrote for the school newspaper, even a few music columns, but he really wanted to write novels. A life farther from what his mother would have chosen is hard to imagine. During his senior year of high school, he and friends went to a Mexican brothel, where he lost his virginity and caught gonorrhea. The doctor who treated him informed his mother, and a committee of elders at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall interviewed him and placed him on probation with the church. At the next meeting he attended, Lester got up and ranted that everyone there was a hypocrite before leaving. This was his exit from the Jehovah's Witnesses, though for the rest of his life his mother would ask if he was interested in returning.
After high school, Lester went to Grossmont Junior College, probably to avoid the draft, but barely attended most of his classes. He was more interested in drugs and alcohol, particularly Romilar cough syrup, a synthetic cough suppressant that acts as a psychedelic in large amounts. (He would continue this habit, despite the nausea-inducing additives put in the cough syrup to keep people from abusing it.) He jammed on harmonica with friends' bands and listened to the Velvet Underground, even though the roommates in his new "hippie crash" pad couldn't stand them. Lester turned out to be a fan of some of the same music as a group of Hell's Angels living nearby, and hung out with them until one day when he witnessed them raping a woman. This (and the reaction of his writing class when he tried to write about it) traumatized Lester for months. Eventually he was able to get out of town, enroll in San Diego State College and plan to become a teacher while he wrote his novel.
In San Diego, Lester saw an ad saying that Rolling Stone magazine was interested in receiving record reviews from freelancers. He was first published there in July 1969, saying Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica was a masterpiece by "the only true dadaist in rock." Review editor Greil Marcus found Lester's work interesting, though he did not print half of what Lester sent in. Nonetheless, it was enough to get Lester feedback from members of the groups he commented on, free review copies of records, and backstage at a Los Angeles Velvet Underground concert. (It also angered some record company executives and got Buddy Miles in the Rolling Stone office throwing an editor against the water cooler, while Jann Wenner ran out on the fire escape.) By the next year, Lester was submitting to other rock magazines, and Creem let him run much wilder than Rolling Stone would allow. In November 1971 he accepted a job as an assistant editor at Creem and moved to Detroit where it was published.
The staff shared a house which was both living quarters and workspace, leading to both close friendships and huge fights (both fueled by drugs and alcohol -- Lester's writing was often fueled by speed as he went up against deadlines). Publisher Barry Kramer tried to keep his hired talent to himself, but Lester continued to freelance with other magazines. However, he was still a major contributor to Creem and there published much of the work that would make his name remembered. He wasn't afraid to piss people off -- even those he idolized, such as Lou Reed, to whom he would say things like "Hey Lou, why doncha start shooting speed again? Then you could come up with something good!" His 1973 review of a Canned Heat album led Jann Wenner to ban him from appearing in Rolling Stone for life (the ban actually lasted five years). His repuation got to the point where Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople could say, "After the Lou Reed interview, which I thought was wonderful, I was very upset if he didn't attack me."
Life was all for fun, with record companies flying Lester and his fellow writers around the country to see their latest bands (and drink, drug, and carouse together). He had many friends to whom he was fiercely loyal, but his romantic relationships with women never succeeded for long. So he went back to solace in music -- favorites were Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Roxy Music. When he went to Jamaica in 1976, he considered Bob Marley "a hippie" but spoke highly of several reggae bands. And though at first he considered the coalescing punk scene in New York to be just like the San Francisco psychedelic bands of the 1960s, gradually he came to like them.
Creem and Detroit were starting to seem tired, and in fall 1976, Lester and then-girlfriend Nancy Alexander moved to New York. An April 1976 party at their apartment was described by friend Ed Ward as "Hi, we're the entire New York scene in Lester's apartment, and we're here to eat your gumbo! If there'd been shellfish toxin in that stuff, that would have been it." Given that members of The Ramones, the Voidoids, Talking Heads, the Patti Smith Group, and Blondie were all there, food poisoning that night certainly would have had an effect on the future of music. Lester was certainly willing to publicize the scene; his work for the next few years largely appeared in The Village Voice. Robert Christgau's editing was a great change from the free rein Lester had at Creem, though, and maintaining the quality of his work as well as keeping up his wild-man image took a toll on him.
Lester did find a new interest; instead of writing about music, he decided he wanted to write music. Punk had an "anyone can do this" attitude, and he had jammed with some of the New York bands for fun. He began to work with guitarist Robert Quine of the Voidoids and Jay Dee Daugherty, drummer for the Patti Smith Group; they recruited a bassist and a second guitarist and recorded, with Lester singing, a single, "Let It Blurt" backed with "Live." This was released as being by just Lester, but eventually the group he performed with (featuring different musicians) would be called Birdland. They performed around the New York/New Jersey area to mixed reviews. Lester also wrote proposals for a book on punk but could not find a publisher. Future work, such as a 1979 article in the Voice about racism in punk, and a book on Blondie which the band felt "stabbed them in the back," alienated many in the punk scene as well.
A positive review of a ZZ Top album and a profile of the band landed Lester an invitation to visit the Austin, Texas home of their guitarist, Billy Gibbons, in 1980. Lester found the music scene there more vital and less cynical than that of New York, and he started looking for musicians to work with. He got together with a group called the Delinquents, and they recorded eleven songs together (as well as the band doing an album's worth without Lester). The work with Lester singing on it was released the next year as an album called "Jook Savages on the Brazos."
In December 1980, Lester went back to New York. The next spring he seemed to decide that he'd had enough of intoxication and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, sponsored by friend Jim Fouratt. They attended a meeting specifically geared toward people involved in the rock scene (Lou Reed was another member). Lester didn't always stay on the wagon, but after his days of indulgence, he continued to return to trying to stay clean. He co-wrote a book on Rod Stewart with friend Paul Nelson, and worked with photography Michael Ochs on a book to be titled Rock Gomorrah about the scandalous behavior of rock musicians. The interviews they did for this project didn't always turn out so well -- stories that are fun to hear in a bar lose some of their charm when the teller knows he's being recorded for a book. For the same publisher, Lester put together a collection of his own columns, to be called Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. He also talked about going to live in Mexico for a while to finally write a novel.
In February 1982, Lester went back to California to visit his mother in the hospital. He left when she was released to stay with her older son Ben, but four weeks later she died of a burst aorta and he had to make the trip again for her funeral. He stayed with his nephew and they caught up on their friendship before Lester went back to New York. Once there, he continued to work, and on Friday, April 30, dropped off the completed draft of Rock Gomorrah with its publisher. John Morthland, a friend who saw him later that day, said he seemed sick with the flu or something. When Lester got home in the evening, he called his friend Nancy Stillman, who said later that she thought she recognized the higher pitch that Lester's voice got when he took Valium. Lester invited Nancy over, but when she arrived about 8:30 and called up to his window, there was no response. The downstairs neighbor let her into the building; when she entered Lester's apartment he appeared to be passed out on the couch, eyes open with one arm dangling to the ground. She called for help, and got first paramedics and then police, but it was too late. The toxicology reports said that the active ingredients of Darvon and Valium were found in his system, but no alcohol or other drugs.
Mickey Leigh of Birdland scraped together the money to release an album of Lester's work in that band, which was rereleased on CD in 1998. Greil Marcus compiled an anthology of Lester's written work which was published in 1987 and used Lester's proposed title, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, though not necessarily the same pieces that Lester had planned to include. The other proposed books that Lester had written were never published. However, Lester's criticism is what made him remembered (and why he is mentioned in songs by artists from Bob Seger to REM to the Ramones). As Ira Robbins phrased it in Salon, "At his best, Bangs was one of the few rock journalists -- but by no means the only one -- who could make you feel the urgent need to hear a record you hadn't known existed, or convince you that you understood the person who recorded it." Or as Kurt Hernon says in his tribute to Lester, "I'd read a million words written about rock and roll since I'd started this love affair, but they all seemed to be spoken at me. This punk Bangs, well he fucking talked with me."
DeRogatis, Jim. Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic. New York: Broadway Books, 2000.
Hernon, Kurt. "Lester Bangs Tribute." November 1999. http://www.furious.com/perfect/lesterbangstribute.html
Robbins, Ira. "Did Lester Bangs Die In Vain?" Salon. 4 April 2000. http://archive.salon.com/ent/music/feature/2000/04/04/bangs/print.html