Old Letters: Lester Bangs 1948-82 (05/11/82)

“I just wanted to write and tell you that I’ve finally figured out what the best records of all time are,” Lester Bangs wrote me some years ago, “so you can throw all the other ones away.” I remember thinking that this represented some kind of brave accommodation with the world, at least as compared with the first letter he had sent me, in 1969: “In short, I would like to blow up the whole set and start all over again.” He was a lonely kid in El Cajon, California, with more brains and more experience than he knew what to do with, looking for people to talk to. Over the next 13 years he probably did more talking, more writing, than anyone in his generation, and it got him famous, got him a reputation–got him a legend of sorts. But I never knew Lester as a clown, or as a celebrity. I knew him instead as a man who struggled with the belief that there was no way to tell the truth without looking like a fool, and so when I heard that he was dead I turned to old letters.

“You may have wondered how I found time to write so many reviews back in October and November,” he wrote on Christmas Day, 1969. “Simple: I never attended classes or did my homework.” A couple of years later: “At this point I feel like reaching for my revolver at the very sight of almost any kind of book on music… Give me a good solid British novelist like Graham Green[e], a Walt Disney Comics and Stories, a copy of Awake magazine, anything… ” In the midst of Watergate: “I think the news now is the best ever. I just can’t wait to jump outa bed, run downstairs and check out the latest dirt… But I think we’re probably due for a renaissance of violence, except as opposed to the (supposedly) directed, morally ration­alised violence of the 60s this is gonna be totally random shit, cold, amoral, nasty, vicious, indiscriminately homicidal, real cool scabrous throat slitters, but WITH NO AXE TO GRIND. Of course. I’ve always wanted to look for the most nihilistic explanation possible for everything. The only thing that scares me personally is that the vinyl shortage may mean I’ll be denied another Iggy and the Stooges album somewhere down the line.”

Lester’s whole life was a battle against nihilism. That was true from the teenage nights he spent making out with his girlfriend in the back seat of his mother’s car, surrounded by bales of the Watchtower; from the high school year he spent on Romilar and belladonna; from the time a gang of biker acquaintances made him watch as they forced a woman they’d kidnapped to suck off every last one of them, a horror that lasted an entire night–and which, along with his records, may have turned Lester into a writer. The alternative of saying fuck it, nothing matters was always real to Lester, as real as the harder alternative of trying to find out what did count–infinitely harder, because there you had to come up with the words that would get that alternative across to other people. Lester fought his battle against nihilism with humor, friendships, love affairs, alcohol, and drugs–but what he really fought with, always wishing he had better weapons, were music and writing: what he could discover in the world of rock and roll and what he could make of it.

Reading through Lester’s letters, I see countless regrets for books gone unwritten, for poems no one would print, for sometimes tortured, sometimes lucid essays on politics and sex that editors would not read or that Lester did not dare show them–and I find hundreds of pages of those same unpublished manuscripts: 40-page, single-spaced, one-sitting screeds that build into elegant accounts of imaginary history; 10-page reveries on women he wanted or women he lost; violent bursts of rage that end with quiet damns. I sit here with the detritus of an old friend, surrounded by piles of work that so many read and piles of work that almost no one read, quietly damning the moment myself. I always knew it would come to this, and I never believed it.

Village Voice, May 11, 1982


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