Let It Blurt: Jim DeRogatis Discusses His New Biography of Lester Bangs

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Let It Blurt (Broadway Books, 331 pages, $15.95) In Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs (Broadway Books, 331 pages, $15.95) longtime Bangs fan Jim DeRogatis, currently the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, tackles his subject with great care and sympathy. DeRogatis met Bangs for the first time in 1982 when, as a high school senior, he selected Bangs as the subject for a paper he was writing (his instructor had asked him to pick a "hero"). Taking the PATH train from New Jersey to Bangs' 6th Ave. apartment, DeRogatis, familiar with Bangs only through his mythic writing, found there was really very little difference between the public and private Lester. According to DeRogatis, "His gangly frame carried a penetrating intellect housed in a brain so big it seemed to be pushing through the alien lump on his forehead." Bangs proceeded to talk his young disciple's ear off about a variety of subjects, but most particularly rock 'n' roll?mainly, what constituted "the real thing" and how that meaning had been lost in the 80s. A couple of weeks later, as DeRogatis was transcribing the mammoth interviews, he heard that Lester Bangs had died of an overdose of the drug Darvon.

    What Let It Blurt attempts to do, through an extensive pillage of the Bangs archives as well as interviews with almost 250 people, is piece together the life and times of the famous dead rock critic. By doing so, DeRogatis has drawn a parallel between not only what was happening in the much-maligned field of rock criticism, but also rock 'n' roll itself during the era when Lester was its most visible adherent (and sometimes detractor). He paints a picture of a demonic spirit possessed of unimpeachable vigor, of a great talent, a genuine visionary and a nice guy to boot.

    What was it like meeting Lester in 1982?

    Jim DeRogatis: I was a putz from New Jersey, a senior in high school, from Catholic school, and I was an idiot. But he was as interested in me as I was in him. I mean, he kept asking, "What do you think?" And "What are you reading?" And "Who do you like who doesn't suck?" And I'm like, "Duh, don't ask me! You're Lester Bangs!" He was really kind. I handed him my copy of his Blondie book, which I'd bought at Barnes & Noble for $1.98?it had a sticker on it. He didn't even realize it was remaindered and his face just kinda dropped. But he signed it, "Now it's your turn."

    ...I left there feeling like I'd made a connection. I hadn't done that many interviews before?I'd done one. I had written to him through the publisher of the Blondie book, Delilah, and I didn't hear anything for a long time and I started to panic because the end of the semester was coming up and the end of my senior year, I had this project due, so I was like, "What am I gonna do?" So I called the Village Voice and I interviewed Robert Christgau. This was my fallback plan?I was gonna go from one extreme to another. I kinda saw them as the yin and yang. So I interviewed Bob and he was very kind and gave me a lot of time and I followed him around the East Village. He went to the post office to pick up his mail. He was very professorial. He was lecturing. Then literally the day I got back from that interview, I got off the PATH train and came home and my mom said, "Hey, I got this weird phone call from some guy named Lester and he said if you show up on Friday at 6th Ave. and 14th St. and yell his name up at the fifth-floor window he'll give you as much time as you want."

    What was the apartment like?

    It was kind of a mess, but I guess it wasn't as bad as it had been. People who knew him who've seen the pictures of that visit two weeks before he died say, "Aw Jeez, he'd cleaned up." I mean, I remember distinctly sitting on the hassock and sitting on some chicken bones and then moving to the couch and sitting on an empty can of soda.

    Unlike so many people, at least the guy believed in something. I mean, not many people could make a career, not to mention a lifestyle, out of standing around the living room listening to records while blitzed on various chemicals.

    Yeah, but "career" is relative?I think in his best years he was making 10 to 15 grand. I know a rock freelancer in New York who bragged about cracking 100 grand by writing these kinds of obsequious profiles that don't do anything for anybody and are just basically about forwarding celebrity. And when you think of the kind of poetry that Bangs and [Nick] Tosches and [Richard] Meltzer wrote for these record reviews for which they got paid $15, you know, it's a little sickening, especially since these works stand as great writing, writing that is often better than the art that they were theoretically supposed to be about. I mean, Bangs on a Black Oak Arkansas or White Witch album is actually better than those records.

    But he had to struggle. And he could not break into the glossies like New York or Playboy, and he tried. Even the Voice, for as much of a loyal contributor as he was, he wrote a lot of cover stories and features that were rejected, and they ran a fashion story making fun of his life as a slob. He had his problems with Rolling Stone, too. But you look at his stuff and it's just so much better than most of what we see published today and you just say, "Why couldn't he find a home for this stuff?" The fact that, in his lifetime, he wasn't able to write the kind of book he wanted to?he had quickie books about Blondie and Rod Stewart, but he had to be dead for five years before Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung [a collection of Bangs' published works that came out from Knopf in '87] could be put together.

    What do you think was the crucial difference between Meltzer and Bangs?

    Stylistically they were really different. Meltzer has this harsh New York edge and you never quite know if he's conning you or telling you the truth or kinda poking you in the ribs or putting his arm around you?he kinda does all that at the same time. And Bangs talks like your buddy. And I think that Lester loved rock 'n' roll, right up until at least 1980. He loved this music, lived it, ate it, breathed it, slept it, shit it, and Meltzer says himself countless times in his new book as well as elsewhere that he thinks that rock 'n' roll, for all intents and purposes, was dead by '69. To Meltzer rock 'n' roll was just something to write about, an excuse to hang his writing on. And it was the same thing with Nick Tosches, and at some point they both moved on. Whereas the debate among people who knew Lester was could he have ever stopped writing about rock 'n' roll? If you look at the ballot he filed for the last "Pazz and Jop" he did in the Voice, he said he was done. He said that there was nothing for him anymore, that he was through, and he talked about wanting to write this novel. But I dunno?it's a sucker's game: What would Lester have done? And it's one that I refuse to play in the book.

    My impression of what killed Lester was that he'd reached this impasse?stuck between the passageways of literary respectability and having to pay the bills, he found himself having to remain obsessed with rock 'n' roll long after he felt it had outlived its usefulness.

    That's romantic claptrap. (laughs) You're saying that the Human League killed Lester?


    Come on, gimme a break! The man had personal demons that were deep in several directions. Sucker's Game No. 2 is this Gail Sheehy/psychological-profile biography bullshit. You know, I wasn't his shrink?I talked to his shrink and I'm not sure his shrink actually understood him. I don't think he was happy about the state of popular culture in 1982, but whatever happened on the night of April 30?intentional, unintentional or some combination of the two, and I think we tend to forget that life is infinite shades of gray, it's not always black and white?I'm not sure it's as simple as either A or B. Point is, he could've survived whatever misadventure took his life, got up the next day and started writing that novel.

    I still blame the Human League.

    You know, I refuse to believe that, Joe. Lester Bangs killed Lester Bangs.

    I think Lester saw rock 'n' roll as a microcosm of the world and what he saw was so depressing that he gave up not just on rock 'n' roll but humanity itself.

    That's the sort of two-dimensional romantic claptrap that had him puking in his typewriter when people served that stuff up about Janis Joplin, about Jimi Hendrix; it drove him crazy and it inspired some of his best pieces, so to say that about him does him a disservice. As a biographer, as a journalist, I knew this was a complicated story and I didn't want to make simple conclusions. I tried to put the evidence together and let people make their own conclusions.

    Some people have painted Lester as champion of intentionally "bad" music like punk or heavy metal, but the thing I found really interesting is how diverse the guy's tastes really were. He reviewed the Doors, Buddy Miles, Steppenwolf, Amon Duul, Yoko Ono, Chicago, Charles Mingus, Roland Kirk and Barbra Streisand.

    Even at the height of the gonzo years, he's writing about Lou Reed, but he's also writing about Helen Reddy. Meltzer kind of laughs at that, but I think Lester had this curiosity that ranged across all genres.

    Do you think he was a failed musician?

    Oh no, that's crap, too. I think that Jook Savages on the Brazos [Bangs' first and only "official" LP] is a really interesting album. When it came out, Christgau said it was "the Velvets meet the Voidoids in Austin" and I think that's a good assessment. The stuff he did with Birdland was really interesting. And the "Let It Blurt" single, well, there's a reason the book has the name it has. Lester recording with Jay Dee Daugherty, Jody Harris and Robert Quine, with John Cale mixing it?those are some of the best musicians of the punk generation and Lester is holding his own as a vocalist and as a songwriter. His voice?you know, by no means was he a "good" singer. Neither were his favorites?neither was Bob Dylan, neither was Lou Reed. But the emotion and the passion! And as Bangs himself said countless times, that's what it's all about.

    Personally, I don't think Bangs could've lived in a world that encompassed such calculating phenomena as MTV, rap music and the Internet.

    You're falling prey to this whole romantic notion, man. You're gonna start talking about Jim Morrison the Lizard King and Kurt Cobain the voice of his generation! That's bullshit?that's what he stood against. Read his Lennon obituary. He was against that kind of simplistic idol-mongering. He might've lived through the Darvon, woke up the next morning and become a bus driver! Who the fuck knows? He was a human being who was a complex person. I think those of us who care about him tend to project ourselves on him, which is what we tend to do with all our rock heroes, even if we deny they're heroes. By virtue of human nature that's gonna cloud your perception of him. And I really tried hard not to do that. I've had life experiences in common with Lester?I know what it's like to be fired from Rolling Stone, for example, and I know what it's like to work in a shoe store. But I was trying as a biographer to be very conscious of not projecting myself. And I think I was lucky because he wrote so much about his life that I didn't have to do that?he told us a lot about what he was feeling all through his life, so he is as much of a source in the book as anyone else I interviewed, and I valued his own words above and beyond everyone else's, mine included.

    This Sunday, April 30, at 8 p.m., DeRogatis and the reunited Birdland will celebrate "An Evening of Blurt" at Manitoba's, 99 Ave. B (betw. 6th & 7th Sts.), 982-2511.