Thursday, April 26, 2012

Let It Blurt

Title: Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic
Author: Jim DeRogatis
Year: 2000
Genre: Biography
Rating: 2

I'm not usually a fan of biographies-- after all, who puts the work into a biography of someone that they're not a huge fan of?-- but there's something to reading about someone's full life. We usually only get snippets of someone's life, like an anecdote on a news show, or a blurb in a textbook. But with a full narrative, we see how some things come full circle, or mean something truly important to a person's life. Biographies give us the cliffnotes on the subject's personal struggles as they developed. Separating the person from the book becomes almost impossible-- after all, we hear their voice, see their face, their actions, their family, everything they ever knew.
Jim DeRogatis, himself a journalist and music critic, introduces us to a character that most of us have at least heard of-- the enigma of the rock world, Lester Bangs. Anyone who knew anything about rock and roll writing in the late 60s, 70s, and early 80s knew who Lester was. With a distinctively outrageous, sometimes abrasive voice, Lester injected himself into every review that he ever wrote, endearing himself to readers across the nation more than any other critic ever had or perhaps ever will. Not only did Lester endear himself to the fans of the music, he himself had fans-- aspiring writers and musicians carried around clippings of his articles from Rolling Stone or Creem until they disintegrated into dust, laughing at his ridiculous vocabulary and ruthless style.
Lives are composed of thousands of moments that define us, that make or break who we are, and we hardly ever think to write them down in case we're important one day and someone wants to write a biography on us. Individual people don't have research libraries containing observations about what may have made them the way they are. DeRogatis has done his research the long, meticulous way-- interviews, reading, and the occasional speculation. Who knows if Lester would have agreed with some of the observations that he makes about what made him the mad genius that he was, but no one can deny that the facts are certainly solid. The author tracks the critic through his childhood in a podunk town in Southern California to a crowded trailer in Detroit to his rat-infested apartment in New York City, picking up the threads of old friends and rivals along the way.
One of the chief problems with most biographies is the fact that they're boring. Not so here. Let It Blurt is cheekily told in Bangsian style, spiced with slightly offensive quotes and out-there moments, characteristic of Lester's life. And yet, we are also drawn closer to Lester than many of his contemporaries were; we see how he struggles for love throughout his life, always eventually losing the women that he loved most, divided between his passion for the wild life of music and his yearning for a quiet life with a family. People always present facades, but underneath, they're all uncertain and questioning about their own lives, and we never see that better than with Lester's many faces.
Refreshingly, DeRogatis doesn't make Lester into either a hero or a villain. We see his faults-- drug addiction, alcoholism, irresponsibility-- as well as his virtues, and they synthesize to form a portrait of a very human, less than perfect man. The biography is not a review of Lester's life; we don't get an idea of whether he was a "good" or "bad" person. At the end, we only know that he did some great things and some terrible things, and all of them brought him to who he was at the end. Although it's impossible to separate the book from Lester's life, the shaping of the writing is very well-executed, cutting out long ruminations and side characters, just as Lester might have done. 
Obviously, this book is very special interest-- not everyone is interested in rock criticism, anyway-- but it's worth a read to just about anyone who enjoys music or journalism. For those who lived during those eras, the liberal splashings of references to bands and shows are an accurate shot of nostalgia, and for those of us born after 1982 (the year that Lester passed away), it's a whole new world that shaped ours into what it is. Plenty of humor lines the pages, and if it strays into moments of long-winded recitations, they stay amusing and fresh.
If a biography can accurately represent a life, then Let It Blurt may be the closest that we can come to knowing the scruffy, beer-stained writer who hung out in bars with bands in New York City. Lester Bangs is remembered both fondly and not so much, but the things that he said stay true for music both then and today. His passion for writing and music were one and the same, and it pours out through both-- the words are a clear mirror for his divided, whirlwind of a soul.
DeRogatis has also included selections of Lester's lyrics (from his jaunt into music) and writing, which are a nice touch, as he references several of the songs in the book-- having the full text helps to give the context for the line and the feeling of the song. The title of the book comes from one of Lester's songs, which is also included in the back of the book, and it gives the title another, deeper meaning.
Let It Blurt is twelve years old now, so it's available on Amazon for as low as $8.95, and you can get a Kindle copy for $13.99. You could probably get through this book in a week or two, as it's not a long read, and it's definitely worth the buy. Music fans and writing fans alike will find plenty to enjoy here, both in reading the book and remembering its subject.

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