The Greatest of the Gonzo Rock Critics

Jim DeRogatis

8 Min Read

Editor’s note: Jim DeRogatis is the author of the definitive Lester Bangs biography, “Let It Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic” (2000).

Despite the long list of brilliant writers published by the snarky but passionate rock rag from Deee-troit, for many who loved Creem during its two-decade run from 1969 to 1989, the magazine and its R. Crumb-drawn mascot have become synonymous with one above all others. Why does Lester Bangs, a gangly, awkward and slovenly scribe from the strip-mall San Diego suburb of El Cajon, who died at 33 after an ugly battle with substance abuse, loom so large with readers nearly four decades after his death? I’ve never been able to come up with a better explanation than the one I wrote in the introduction to my 2000 biography, “Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic.”

Source: Charlie Auringer, courtesy of the Creem Archive

“Lester was the great gonzo journalist, gutter poet and romantic visionary of rock writing — its Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one. Out of tune with the peace ’n’ love ethos of the ’60s and the Me Generation navel-gazing of the ’70s, he agitated for sounds that were harsher, louder, more electric, and more alive, charting if not defining the aesthetics of heavy metal and punk. Where others idealized the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle or presented a distant academic version of it, he lived it, reveling in its excesses, drawing energy from its din, and matching its passion in prose that erupted from the pages… In the process, he became a peer of the artists he celebrated, brash visionaries and dedicated individualists such as Captain Beefheart, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Richard Hell and most of all Lou Reed.”

Creem had been publishing for a year and a half when Bangs moved to Detroit to join and live with the staff in 1971, and it continued for 13 years after he left as the culmination of a long and bitter feud with publisher Barry Kramer. “I did five years in Detroit,” Bangs wrote. “That’s how I always say it, too — ‘did’ as in ‘time.’” During his tenure, he wrote 71 major features (depending on how you count; three were so long they had to run over two issues) and more than 182 record, book and movie reviews, in addition to countless headlines and captions.

Such a prolific, often speed-fueled output obviously made its mark in characterizing a publication that proclaimed itself “America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine.” But just as important is how Bangs interpreted that boast and brought it to life, with an attitude, aesthetic and ethos displayed on every page and encouraged in the dozens of other writers he mentored and recruited.

To wit: “Rock stars” were not anointed geniuses deserving of slavish worship, immune from criticism and worthy of a place atop a pedestal, where Rolling Stone was wont to put them. Similarly, Creem writers weren’t precious about their own craft. “We ain’t got nothing you ain’t got, so what do ya’ got?,” ran the house ad soliciting readers who wanted to become writers. Bangs and most of those who responded preferred their rock ’n’ roll — and soul and funk and country and jazz and reggae — loud, raw, immediate and propelled more by passion than by virtuosity. Envisioning itself as a cross between Esquire (at the height of the New Journalism, when journalists and critics began to bring the literary techniques of novelists and short-story writers to their work) and the satirical comic Mad magazine, Creem took nothing seriously, least of all itself. The mantra: Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

At the same time, the music loved most by the writers was nothing less than the most important art form of the moment, and of our lives — second person plural, “ours” not “their,” because Creem contributors, Bangs chief among them, saw themselves as part of a vibrant community of true believers. We may be outsiders and misfits in the world at large, the thinking went, but we’re all in this together.

Bangs’ time at Creem spanned the evolution of the magazine — and, indeed, of music writing itself — from spontaneous expressions of unbridled fandom to a ‘respected’ and belabored profession.

Bangs’ time at Creem spanned the evolution of the magazine — and, indeed, of music writing itself — from spontaneous expressions of unbridled fandom to a “respected” and belabored profession, albeit one that paid poorly and mostly produced birdcage liner. He started in the days of Creem as a glorified underground newspaper based on the Cass Corridor, infamous as the epicenter of the 1967 riots; made the move to communal hippie living in a ramshackle farmhouse in rural Walled Lake (“Dogpatch without the charm,” Bangs called it) and wound up churning out a by-then glossy monthly from yuppie offices in suburban Detroit, sharing space on the second floor of the Birmingham Theatre building with a dentist and a pair of gay hairdressers.

Source: Creem Archive

These moves corresponded to Kramer’s desire to turn the operation into an empire, as Jann Wenner did with Rolling Stone, but a proposed Creem record label, radio hour and British edition never got off the ground. “When I quit after five years, when I was senior editor — and I had contributed a lot to making the magazine whatever it was — I was still only taking home $175 a week,” Bangs groused to me two weeks before his death in 1982. Ironically, Kramer’s biggest success may have been in creating the writer he often resented, if only because he consistently gave Bangs the freedom to make a mess on the page.

The Creem pieces loom large in Bangs’ canon, some collected in two posthumous anthologies — “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung,” edited by Greil Marcus, and “Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste,” compiled by Bangs’ friend and fellow Creem veteran John Morthland — but many others are preserved only in crumbling piles of rotting paper in collectors’ basements. In assessing these many hundreds of thousands of words, jealous perhaps of the enduring place he holds in the hearts of so many readers, some peers and modern critics begrudgingly praise Bangs’ rambunctious style while claiming there were few “important” or original ideas in that mountain of scrawl. To that, I call bullshit.

“Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review, or Who’s This Fool?” wrestles with half a dozen heavy questions about the very essence of rock ’n’ roll, among them the roles of pretension, humor, anomie and at-times deadly nihilism. “Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber: Black Sabbath and the Straight Dope of Blood-Lust Orgies” examines the urge to transcend earthly mundanity via comic-book horror, noting that hell sure sounds like a lot more fun than heaven. (Ozzy & Co. were the John Miltons of rock, Lester asserted.) He dove deep into a new sound in one of its earliest pieces in the U.S. press, seeing it not as exotic “world music,” but kin to all he loved. Reggae “brims over with passion, love, rage, pain, anguish, and joy, just like the best of all music,” he wrote. “And though most American listeners don’t ‘get’ it at first exposure, perceiving it and even becoming addicted to it are not at all the artificial, hip-liberal-motivated processes you might think.”

Bangs weighed in on the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” in Creem not once but twice, first calling the epic double album “a mass of admittedly scalding gruel” and “the worst studio album the Stones have ever made,” then hailing it as a masterpiece “about casualties, and partying in the face of them. The party is obvious. The casualties are inevitable.” (Never trust a critic who doesn’t occasionally double back on themselves, Bangs said, nodding to the clichéd truism that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.) And, speaking of ’70s casualties, he also infamously wrestled with Lou Reed of his beloved Velvet Underground in three legendary interviews.

More than just two drunken giants trading insults, these comically cruel dialogs question the responsibility of artists to their fans and their own talents; the notion of “giving the people what they want” and compromising to meet market demands, and the relationship between critic and artist, sometimes blurring the lines. But don’t take my word for it. British writer Nick Kent, a talent whose work stands only in the shadow of Bangs’, sat in on one of those interviews, and what he witnessed convinced him that, “I had to get my talent together. It couldn’t just be bullshit anymore. Bangs showed me how to do it: Just be yourself. Be penetrating. And don’t fuck around.”

If you’re looking for one writer who was the living embodiment of the magazine and its R. Crumb milk-bottle mascot, in the spirit of always-ready-to-rumble Detroit, I’ll fight you if you name anyone but Lester.

I can find penetrating ideas even in Bangs’ funniest, most free-associating pieces — say, “Jethro Tull in Vietnam,” or a demolition of Emerson, Lake & Palmer called “Blood Feast of Reddy Kilowatt” — but then I’m a part-time literature professor, and I’d rather you just dive in and discover what you will yourself. Start with Lester in Creem. It certainly isn’t all he was as a writer: Some of what preceded his move to Detroit is revelatory; he contributed to a dozen other publications even while toiling on Kramer’s farm (much to the publisher’s chagrin), and excellent work followed when he left, especially for The Village Voice. But if you’re looking for one writer who was the living embodiment of the magazine and its R. Crumb milk-bottle mascot, in the spirit of always-ready-to-rumble Detroit, I’ll fight you if you name anyone but Lester. Boy howdy!

Published in partnership with Creem Magazine

Born the year the Beatles arrived in America, Jim DeRogatis began voicing his opinions about rock ’n’ roll shortly thereafter. He is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, and together with Greg Kot, he co-hosts “Sound Opinions,” the weekly pop-music talk show heard on 150 Public Radio stations and via podcast. DeRogatis spent 15 years as the pop-music critic at The Chicago Sun-Times and has written 10 books about music, including “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly”, “Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs” and “Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock.”

Stories like this straight to your inbox

Exclusive video and the best music writing in the world, in your inbox every week. Subscribe today.