Lester Bangs, who died in 1982 of what a New York medical examiner called a Darvon overdose (though some have other theories), is arguably the only rock critic, dead or alive, whose life and achievements warrant a book-length examination. Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis, is a ”warts and all” look at this woefully self-destructive genius.
The basic facts: Bangs, the product of a troubled home, grew up in El Cajon, Calif., gravitating early to beat prose, jazz, and rock (not to mention drugs and alcohol). He was a shoe salesman when he began freelancing for Rolling Stone in 1969, but by 1971 he’d become the star staffer at Creem (”America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine”). He continued to write prolifically for numerous publications until his death. A wordsmith of uncommon eloquence and endless passion, he documented — and helped shape — both heavy metal and punk; his work (some of which can be found in the posthumous collection, ”Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung”) continues to inspire admirers and imitators.
As DeRogatis makes painfully clear, Bangs’ personal life was a shambles. A world-class substance abuser, Bangs once called burning out ”the central heroic myth of the sixties,” coining a credo — ”live fast, be bad, get messy, die young” — and fulfilling it. The final chapters of ”Blurt,” which document his free fall into an alcoholic abyss, are as riveting as the last third of Martin Scorsese’s ”GoodFellas” (and a lot more depressing). DeRogatis wisely offsets the horror of Bangs’ final years by including a postscript by the great man himself, a howlingly funny 1974 essay called ”How to Be a Rock Critic” that should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in music journalism.