If you saw the semi-autobiographical film “Almost Famous,” chances are you recall Philip Seymour Hoffman playing music critic Lester Bangs. There are a few reasons why you would remember it. For one, Hoffman is a recognizable actor in a movie filled with unrecognizable ones. For another, Bangs (along with the protagonist’s mom) is the film’s great contrarian, telling young William Miller that rock is dead and gone, and that he’s wasting his time trying to cover it or find any deeper meaning in it. And of course, he has all the best lines in the movie (e.g., “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”).
One striking thing about the portrayal of Bangs in the movie is how much time he gives to the central character, an aspiring young journalist who shows up at a radio show appearance to talk with him. He spends hours with him, alternately giving advice and ranting about the state of popular music. This might stretch the viewer’s credulity a bit: Surely a nationally renowned writer wouldn’t spend so much time with some nobody, right? (Even if the “nobody” in question would grow up to be a famous movie director and an accomplished music writer in his own right.)
Well, as it turns out, Bangs did give personal time and attention to readers and aspiring writers. A lot. In Let It Blurt, a biography written by Chicago music commentator Jim DeRogatis (who, like Cameron Crowe, personally benefited from Bangs’ generous giving of himself), the author recounts several instances of this. For me, the most memorable were the stories of how people who wrote him letters asking for writing tips would receive random, late-night phone calls from him while he was tripping on cough syrup. Bangs would then chew their ear for an hour or two about journalism, music, and whatever else was on his mind. In other words, he was a “social” celebrity before it was cool (or even “kewl”), and not just in the shallow way we throw that term around today.
With the advent of social media, it’s become popular for celebrities and other notable public figures to communicate directly with the public via these platforms. This is, presumably, because social networks like Twitter make it easy to interact with fans without actually getting too close to them. But these fleeting virtual exchanges shouldn’t be mistaken for any kind of authentic, important relationship. To use a personal example, I’m connected with MLB pitcher Curt Schilling on LinkedIn. While I suppose it’s neat to have some kind of association with the ace that led your team to its first World Series Championship since World War I, it’s also essentially meaningless. I mean, it’s not like Schilling is going to call me at 1 a.m. someday to talk at length about how to throw a split-finger changeup. (But, Curt, if you did, I would totally take that call.)
Wait, where were we?
Oh, yes. In addition to getting close to fans, Bangs got close to his subjects. Sometimes uncomfortably so. A theme throughout his life, which is captured well in DeRogatis’ book, is his fixation on Lou Reed. Bangs was obsessed with Reed’s work — even Metal Machine Music — and persona. But Bangs wasn’t a sycophantic fan. He saw Reed as a kind of nemesis as well, and on the occasions they were together, the two of them would engage in mutual disparagement.
Reed’s needling likely stemmed from the fact that he wanted to be perceived as a brilliant, enigmatic artist, and as such, felt the need to put the lowly music critic in his place. But the iconoclastic Bangs viewed Reed’s self-constructed image as a shiny red balloon, and saw himself as a 10-year-old kid with a sewing needle. Like other great gonzo writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke and Matt Taibbi, he relished any opportunity to deflate pomposity and pretension. And, he just flat-out enjoyed fucking with people.
If that were all there was to Bangs, he wouldn’t have been much more than an entertaining provocateur/eccentric. But there was quite a bit more substance to the man. For one thing, he could write like hell. He would stay up late, drink some Darvon, chase it with some booze, and spill these long, stream-of-consciousness, bombastic tirades out of his crazy mind. And they were brilliant, dammit! So many writers rack their brains for the best possible turn of phrase, for just the right way to say something, but Lester, well, blurted it out on paper.
Along with his writing proficiency, he had a knack for seeing where music was headed — which was often nowhere — before it actually got there. For example, Bangs traveled to Jamaica in the late 1970s. While hanging out in the dancehalls and record shops in that country, he noted the fact that DJs were playing around with the dials and knobs as they alternated between parts of different records. He didn’t call it hip hop, a term that wouldn’t come until a couple of years later, but he seemed to recognize the origins of a new style of musical performance that would soon be exported to the Boogie Down Bronx. He might have been the most important cultural figure to find out about it up to that point, as punk rock impresario Malcolm McLaren didn’t “discover” hip hop until the early 1980s.
DeRogatis’ great book covers all this and more, including Bangs’ unconventional childhood (he was raised by his mother, who was a devout member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) and early death in 1982. This was probably caused by overdose but, as the author points out, that was never determined conclusively.
Whatever the cause, he passed on at the young age of 33, a true tragedy. Presuming he wouldn’t have gone insane later in life (probably not a safe assumption, really), it would have been fascinating to read what he thought about, say, grunge. My guess is that he would have liked some of the music, but still railed against the pathos of guys like Kurt Cobain (a fan of Bangs’) and Eddie Vedder as being antithetical to the purpose of rock — that is, stupid fun. I suspect he might have been more sympathetic to the indies, even though he probably would have viewed much of their work as innocuous fluff.
Hell, he might have even started Pitchfork, or something like it. Or maybe he would have become a TV pitchman. The guy was unpredictable that way.