5 Q's: Jim DeRogatis, author of "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic"

Today, "Five Questions" are put to Jim DeRogatis, pop music critic, co-host of Sound Opinions and the author of nine books, including Let It Blurt:  The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic, which was the focus of our conversation and, by the way, essential reading!


Did you know Lester Bangs? Has he or a critic or writer like him ever changed your mind about a band or artist made you like or dislike someone you previously felt the opposite about? Who?

I met Lester and spent a long afternoon with him on April 14, 1982. I was a high-school senior at Hudson Catholic Regional School for Boys in my native Jersey City, N.J. All the smart kids took Masterpieces of Western Literature; the football team took Journalism, because it was all short sentences. I took both, and I was driving the journalism teacher crazy with all these questions like, “What is the New Journalism?” and “What is the role of investigative reporting in the wake of Woodward and Bernstein and Silkwood?” and “What is the difference between journalism and criticism?” The teacher finally said, “Look, you are a pain in my ass. Just go interview a chosen hero in your field, write it up, stop coming to class, and you’ve got an A.” I picked Lester. He was very much the same kind, mentoring character that Phillip Seymour Hoffman portrayed in Almost Famous; Cameron Crowe was 17 when he met Lester in 1972, and I was 17 when I met him in 1982, and we bonded over that years later. Hoffman in fact was walking around the set of the film listening to the tape of my interview to get the speech patterns right, and I think he very much captured Lester’s spirit. I was a fat, clueless kid, but Lester was as interested in me as I was in him: “What are you listening to, what do you read, why do you want to do this?” I was, of course, like, “Ugh, I dunno, you're Lester Bangs, and I don’t know shit!” But that day changed my life, and when I gave him the copy of Blondie, the fan-book quickie which was the only book he published in his lifetime, he signed it, “Now it’s your turn. Best, Lester.” I have owed him a karmic debt ever since, and I interpret that not only as having a duty to have done his story right in Let It Blurt, but to share that same enthusiasm he shared with me with other aspiring writers.

Does being “in the club” like Lester was, i.e. friend (or in his case, an enemy) to rock stars, wreck your credibility as a critic?

The advice Hoffman-as-Lester gives the young Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous is solid: Don’t make friends with the rock stars. But as someone who has studied and practiced journalism for my whole life, I also know that is somewhat unrealistic: You are a part of the community you cover, no matter how hard you try to maintain some distance in the interest of “journalistic objectivity.” Now, the New Journalism maintained that was impossible, and it’s especially difficult for critics, because objectivity is the last thing you want from a critic — criticism is the attempt to intellectually convey your emotional reaction to a work of art, using context, evidence, and insight (is how I define it for my students in Reviewing the Arts at Columbia College Chicago). Still, Lester went perhaps a bit too far, if only for his own mental health, in constantly being surprised that some of his heroes and heroines (Patti Smith, Blondie, the Clash, and infamously Lou Reed), after initially loving him when he lauded them in print, turned on him when he wrote something they didn’t like as much. I’ve never let that bother me. Your allegiance first and foremost is to be honest with the reader. Lester never compromised his honesty. But it hurt when artists he admired denigrated him. It’s an occupational hazard, anyone who pursues this has to deal with it, and it was a bit surprising to me that by age 33 — he died on April 30, 1982, two weeks after we met — he still had not developed a coping mechanism for that.

Were Lester Bangs' opinions actually any good or was he just a good writer?

Some major figures in this rock-crit racket — his editors Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus, to name two — maintain that Lester was a great stylist and very entertaining writer but not a deep thinker. I could not disagree more. Because his writing is so colorful and entertaining, you can miss the fact that he dealt with, often first but always most cogently and colorfully, some very important critical ideas: on authenticity and the importance of passion over technique, on feminism and post-feminism, on ethics in art and in criticism, and on dozens of other issues that it would take us hours to chart. Of course, he had his guilty pleasures. But I believe that the eventual acceptance of the art he championed longest and most wholeheartedly — especially the Velvet Underground and punk — has borne out how very good and prescient his taste really was.

I am given to understand that only about five people in the whole world ever had, have, or ever will have real punk credibility and everybody else is a poser. Tell me once and for all who these people are.

Well, I don’t agree with that whatsoever. This gets to that thorniest of critical bugaboos: authenticity. Postmodern thinking tells us nothing is authentic; everything is show business, at least if there is commerce involved to any extent. Bullshit. Listen to Nirvana’s “Polly” vs. anything by Bush and tell me one does not have some ineffable essence — call it authenticity, call it soul, call it what you will — that the other certainly does not. Or the Ramones vs. Justin Bieber or Public Enemy vs. 50 Cent or any of a million other examples you can name. The parsing of all this is in the fine print (“Yeah, well, the Ramones woulda sold out if anyone was buying! Nirvana did appear on the cover of Rolling Stone!” etc. etc.) and it’s irrelevant and a distraction to what ultimately matters most and will endure forever: the art. In other words, listen to the record and forget this stupid debate. That’s Bangsian thinking, anyway, and I subscribe to it — not that I’d ever be foolish enough to attempt to say definitively, “This is what Lester would have thought of [fill in the blank].” He was far too perverse and unpredictable a mind to play that game. Maybe he would have hated Nirvana and loved Bush. Who knows? But again, it doesn’t matter. Listen for yourself and make up your own mind — this is something I know he believed, because he said it to me and to countless others, and his approach to criticism never was to be the last word, but the person to get the conversation started. Which is how I’ve always thought, too, and which was the motivating force of everything I’ve read or ever said on Sound Opinions.

Where do you go against the grain? Is there an artist out there who is generally critically disdained that you think is good or vice-versa?

Sure, there are countless examples! I hate Springsteen and think Meat Loaf (on the first Bat Out of Hell) is a better Springsteen than Springsteen ever was. I also intensely dislike the Who, and I edited a whole book called Kill Your Idols. On the other hand, I unapologetically love the Black-Eyed Peas and Smashmouth and Genesis. I could go on and on and on. Think for yourself. That’s the most punk thing anyone can do; there is no right and no wrong in art. I also think we should all strive for something Oscar Wilde (read The Critic as Artist) suggested in this quote (similar to Kerouac and Bangs and many of my other lit heroes and heroines): “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”