final credits of Almost Famous - Cameron Crowe's sweet remembrance
of being a teenage rock critic in the '70s - rolled onto the
screen, a disclaimer appeared. It stated that the movie was
fictional, though one character, a young female groupie, was
a composite of several individuals. I waited to see something
about Lester Bangs. Maybe that his appearance in the film
was by permission of - I don't know, Lou Reed, or the manufacturers
of Robitussin, or '60s one-hit wonders The Count Five - or
And there were
no disclaimers for Rolling Stone's Ben Fong-Torres or Jann
Wenner, either - though Wenner had a cameo role in the film
- not as himself; a younger actor portrayed him.
The Lester character
in Almost Famous has been described as its ``Yoda figure''
and ``Fairy Godmother.'' True enough. In the film, the presence
of the Bangs character - deftly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman
- is felt throughout, though he's in only three or four scenes
as he patiently guides the young writer in his dealings with
musicians and editors.
who was known to slurp cough syrup and died of an apparently
accidental Darvon overdose in 1982, may have been Crowe's
mentor, but probably would have been displeased with the movie.
The groupies were never as sweet and clean, for one thing,
and the film's neat and happy ending would have been ridiculed,
no doubt, by its Yoda.
- PART II
Almost Famous is, in fact, the second phase of the Bangs revival,
which began with the publication of Chicago Sun-Times writer
Jim DeRogatis' book, Let It Blurt. It's a terrific biography
of the author's hero, who, like Cameron Crowe (and his on-screen
alter ego), was a mentor of sorts to him as a teenage rock
What a name! Better than Wolf Blitzer. It's a declarative
sentence! In the late '60s through the early '80s, it held
secret meaning to the initiated. Bangs first emerged as a
reviewer for Rolling Stone - decades before their discovery
of fashion and boy bands - back when they were on the cutting
edge of the emergent counterculture. His writing was brash,
idiosyncratic and anarchic. As Rolling Stone grew more sensitive
to the needs of its advertisers (and less interested in offending
them), Bangs was deemed redundant. Uncool. Antihip.
He soon segued
to Creem, a second-string rock rag more compatible with his
determinedly gonzo approach to popular culture. With an enthusiastic
constituency urging him on, Bangs tunneled to new depths of
transcultural analysis. Never burdened by reality, he created
whole discographies and histories of bands in colorful and
enthusiastic reviews that were far more entertaining than
DeRogatis' book engagingly chronicled Bangs' life before and
after Creem, and is worth reading.
During the course
of his research, he called me. I'd met Bangs back in May of
1974. I was a promotion man for the local Buffalo music distributor,
and Lester was part of an invited pack of rock critics participating
in what was loosely called a symposium, courtesy of a local
college's student activities budget.
I had written record and concert reviews for my college paper
a few years previously, so I wound up hanging with several
of the celebrated rock writers of the day, including Richard
Meltzer, Greg Shaw, Nick Tosches, John Mendelssohn, Lenny
Kaye, Patti Smith (before signing with Arista) and Rob Tyner,
lead singer of the Detroit band MC5 among others.
I cheerfully supplied
DeRogatis with a cassette copy of the actual ``symposium,''
which he recounts in Let It Blurt. Suffice to say that Lester,
and an equally rambunctious Richard Meltzer, seized the controls
and steered the proceedings down to earth, stripping the whole
thing of its academic pretensions. After nearly an hour of
back and forth, the goings-on dissolved when Tosches invited
panel and audience to a party in a girls' dormitory.
I was uncharacteristically
absent from whatever debauchery ensued and, upon returning
to campus the following morning, I encountered the hung over
and bedraggled Bangs and Tyner. I invited them to breakfast.
We drove across town to my tiny apartment, where I brewed
Bangs was clearly
pleased not to have to be ``on'' and acting like Lester Bangs,
the Wild Man of Rock. He asked me what I did, and listened
intently as I told him about my college rock writing, and
decision to ``quit the comedy group and get heavy,'' a quote
from Frank Zappa's movie 200 Motels, which he showed no sign
But Lester asked me about my new promotion job and said that
it was good to get someone smart dealing with all those bozos
who programmed radio stations. Maybe they'd start playing
some good music, he figured. I briefly considered digging
out some of my old reviews, but immediately decided that it
would be a stupid move, so instead, I refilled coffee cups
and chatted on a bit more, before returning them to the dorm.
Maybe if it had
been a few years earlier and I was still passionate about
reviewing the latest import single by The Move, but that time
I learned of Lester's largesse toward guys like DeRogatis
and Crowe, I was unsurprised. He was always a fan, probably
most comfortable around fellow vinyl junkies, cut-out bin
rummagers and label-credit squinters; guys who loved B-sides
and second albums from bands who never would get the chance
to record a third.
Go see Almost
Famous. It's probably as close as you'll get to experiencing
that slim slice of time that came and went all too quickly.
And if you want to learn more about the cryptic figure that
made it all possible, pick up DeRogatis' bio, or Greil Marcus'
compilation of a small portion of Lester's vast body of work,
Carburetor Dung and Psychotic Reactions. Lester remains as
uncool and inspirational as ever.