Lester Bangs (born Leslie Conway Bangs, December 14, 1948ľApril 30, 1982) was an American music journalist, author and musician. A very influential, if not founding, voice in rock music criticism, Bangs died in New York City, overdosing after treating a cold with Darvon and Valium.
Bangs was born in Escondido, California. His mother was a devout Jehovah's Witness; his father died when Bangs was young. In 1969, Bangs began writing freelance after reading an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting readers' reviews. He later worked for Creem, The Village Voice, Penthouse, Playboy, New Musical Express and many others.
Bangs claimed his influences were not so much predecessors in journalism as it was beat authors, in particular William S. Burroughs. His ranting style, similar to Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism, and his tendency to insult and confront his interviewees earned him distinction; it also got him fired from Rolling Stone by Jann Wenner in 1973 for being "disrespectful to musicians."
Bangs is often credited with inventing the term "punk". In his 1971 essay "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" (found in the eponymous collection, see below) he writes "... then punk bands started cropping up who were writing their own songs but taking the Yardbirds' sound and reducing it to this kind of goony fuzztone clatter". From even his earliest published work ("The MC5: Kick out the Jams", 1970): "Never mind that they came on like a bunch of sixteen-year-old punks on a meth power trip...."
"Punk" was a word that Lester Bangs used frequently: he wrote an autobiographical novel Drug Punk, in 1968; this is unpublished, but excerpts can be found in the collection Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste. What Bangs actually meant by "punk" might be debated, but it's clear that he was an advocate for an attitude toward music with which later punk rockers could easily sympathize. Again from "Psychotic Reactions":
It wasn't until much later, drowning in the kitschvats of Elton John and James Taylor, that I finally came to realize that grossness was the truest criterion for rock 'n' roll, the cruder the clang and grind the more fun and longer listened-to the album would be.
... it was just that he couldn't stand ineptitude of any kind in music, which was perfectly reasonable, while I dug certain outrageous brands of ineptitude the most!
In fact, Bangs -- a defender of Lou Reed's notorious Metal Machine Music -- took this attitude further than many Punks would. From "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise" (1980):
Look at it this way: there are many here among us for whom the life force is best represented by the livid twitching of one tortured nerve, or even a full-scale anxiety attack. I do not subscribe to this point of view 100%, but I understand it, have lived it. Thus the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation.
In Cameron Crowe's autobiographical movie Almost Famous (2000), a young music journalist on his first assignment for Rolling Stone in the 1970s idolizes, then meets Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. SF author Bruce Sterling's story Dori Bangs (1989) was inspired by Bangs (along with the underground comic book artist Dori Seda). Sterling speculates on what Bangs might have done had he lived longer.
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, collected writings, Griel Marcus, ed. Anchor Press, 1988. (ISBN 0679720456)
Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, collected writings, John Morthland, ed. Anchor Press, 2003. (ISBN 0375713670)