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Dion Dimucci

Lester Bangs in Buffalo

Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous"

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History of Warner Brothers Music

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Published in The Miami Herald on October 25, 2000

ALMOST LESTERPhilip[ Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs


As the 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 somebody.

But no.

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.

Bangs, 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.

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 scribe.

Lester Bangs. 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 the music.
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 and scrambled.

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 of recognizing.

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 had passed.

So when 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.