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The Beautiful, Strange, Brilliant, Sloppy Genius of Lester Bangs

Mad respect. This is the only phrase that comes to mind when I think about the sloppy genius Lester Bangs. Like all of us, I’m sure he didn’t plan to end up that way. But years of disappointment, spontaneous joy, alcoholism and an industry that constantly dragged him back for a fix all contributed to the signature lack of panache (and that’s being generous) that marked his overall presentation. A native of El Cajon, Calif. (just northeast of San Diego), Bangs reeked of everything modern society craves in every post on Instagram: authenticity.

I have to admit, I knew nothing about Lester Bangs until the death of his career-long subject, Lou Reed, in 2013. It must have been something I heard on NPR (my modern-day encyclopedia) that put their names together. Both were artists who sought truth in their individual crafts and had an uncanny way of making sure people heard them. The thing we’re all hoping the world recognizes, our voice, is what has most intrigued me about this outlier in journalism. Bangs’ voice was not contrived or conceived as part of a brand to be followed, he was uniquely himself. In his June 14, 1979 Rolling Stone review of Lou Reed’s “The Bells” Bangs wrote:

Reed achieves his oft-stated ambition – to become a great writer, in the literary sense. More than that I cannot say, except: Lou, as you were courageous enough to be our mirror, so in turn we’ll be your family. You gave us reason to think there might still be meaning to be found in this world beyond all the nihilism, and thereby spawned and kept alive a whole generation whose original parents may or may not have been worthy of them. If one is to be haunted by ghosts, who’s to say they’re not specters of love pouring back from dead angels and living children?

Wow! This is not just true of Reed; this is the essence of who Lester Bangs was – a man full of complexity, shaped by his difficult past and childhood experiences, but truly a genius. It also demonstrates the intelligence of his work as a journalist: his ability to tap into an artist’s creative process while critically assessing the work.

So what is it about Lester Bangs that I personally connect to? The awkwardness, the angst, the honesty, the unabashed love for his craft, his true fandom? All of it! His reality and truth become yours for just a moment when you read his reviews or hear him speak. What’s fascinating about Bangs is not only was he writing about great art and the times in which the art was conceived; he was writing about himself.

The fall of 1968 was such a terrible time: I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across my mind. My social contacts had dwindled almost to none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid … [“Astral Weeks”] assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.

In yet another poetic and editorial moment, Bangs’ review of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” shows us how music and art can be all the human contact we need to heal our hearts, soothe our minds and awaken our consciousness to the world we inhabit. So why not be you? Everyone else is already taken! Besides, the world is desperate for and in need of more beautifully strange rock critics.

How to Be a Rock Critic, which is based on the writing of Lester Bangs, runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre June 17 – 28, 2015. Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, performed by Jensen and directed by Blank.

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