“Lou, as you were courageous enough to be our mirror, so in turn we’ll be your family.” – Lester Bangs, The Bells Review, Rolling Stone
I don’t think I knew what good music was until I heard the Velvet Underground for the first time. As a graduate student at Syracuse University I discovered Lou Reed actually lived in Syracuse and attended the school for several years. I sort of felt like this gave me an even deeper connection with the artist, even if it was a superficial connection. Lou Reed died this week, and I struggled trying to figure out what I wanted to say about him and his music. So I decided to look at someone else’s relationship with Lou Reed—the relationship he had with pioneering music critic Lester Bangs. As a music writer—I went to Syracuse for arts journalism with a focus in music—Bangs has been hugely influential to me. I never wanted to mimic him, but I still found his ideas and thoughts worth reading, especially his views on Lou Reed. The pair had a contentious relationship that ran the gamut from hatred and contempt to love and respect. In grad school I wrote a seminar paper on their relationship (and created the best PowerPoint presentation ever!). The paper is include below:
Lester Bangs vs. Lou Reed: The Relationship of a Critic and an Artist
Most critics have a passion for the arts. Most artists have that same passion. But often times, sharing a passion on opposite ends of a creative spectrum only leads to a complicated relationship. In the history of arts criticism, the relationship between the critic and the artist proves to be at the very least complex, and at the worst, down right nasty.
In 1870, after receiving a bad review from his friend and critic Edmond Duranty, Impressionist painter Edouard Manet reportedly confronted Duranty in a café and slapped him with a glove. He then challenged the critic to a duel. During the duel, Duranty sustained a minor injury, but the two were said to have remained friends after the incident.[i]
The delicate ties between artist and critic haven’t changed. In a 2009 blog, theater critic Alexis Soloski discussed the pitfalls of befriending artists. She wrote, “I also grew charier about having personal relationships with artists. Increasingly, I found it difficult to write about people I knew. While I certainly wouldn’t change a negative review into a positive one (I do have some integrity), I would fret over articles, worrying that acquaintances might be hurt by what I’d written.”[ii]
In addition to navigating the friendship line, critics and artists are often at odds over what they see as good art. Just as Manet disagreed with Duranty’s claims that the paintings were “a philosopher trampling oyster shells,” many artists grow furious at writers who give bad criticism. Of course, this isn’t always the case.
The complicated and sometimes sordid relationship between critic and artist is perhaps best demonstrated in the world of rock music criticism.
Rock band Guns N’ Roses released a song called “Get in the Ring,” which attacks critics who gave bad reviews of the band. Lead singer Axl Rose even mentioned some critics by name. [iii]
In Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, Philip Seymour Hoffman steals a scene playing the infamous rock critic Lester Bangs and warns a 15-year-old journalist not to befriend to the musicians.
And the real Bangs knew that all too well. As one of the most influential critics in the formative years of rock criticism, Bangs developed a gonzo-style of music criticism and wrote for several major rock publications including Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Creem and NME. He lived a short life, dying in 1982, but in his 33 years he met and wrote about some of the most influential musicians. Bangs lived amongst the rock stars and cultivated myriad relationships with those artists, but the most high-profile relationship he had was with Lou Reed, the lead singer, guitarist and founder of the influential band The Velvet Underground.
While Bangs and Reed maintained an intriguing relationship full of ups and downs—hero worship, worthy adversaries, mortal enemies—Bangs’ criticism throughout the years demonstrates that while his opinion of Reed as a person continued to diminish, his opinion of Reed’s music didn’t follow that same pattern. Instead, Bangs’ life and what he valued in music influenced his vacillating take on Reeds’ music, whether he loved it or hated it.
From an early age Bangs valued the genre of music that Reed made. Leslie Conway Bangs was born in 1948. His mother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, but Reed grew to rebel against her strict rules. Soon after Reed’s parents split, his father died in a fire. Bangs was eight years old. After that, his mother and brother moved to El Cajon, Calif. Bangs grew up here, finding his passion for the Beats like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, for writing in various forms and for debauchery with drugs and alcohol, specifically the cough syrup Romilar. But more importantly, Bangs discovered his love for music. He took solace in the music. [iv]
“Buying records was always a certain form of self-expression for me (I almost said therapy, but you don’t want to make yourself look to desperate).” One of the records he found comfort in was The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. He lauded the album as, “Rock ‘n Roll’s ultimate expression of nihilism and destruction.” [v]
Lewis Allan Reed was born in 1942, six years before Bangs. He was born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, grew up in Long Island. At the age of 17, in 1959, Reed’s parents had him treated with electroshock therapy for his mood swings, bad grades, bad behavior and displays of homosexual behavior. Reed graduated from Syracuse University. He then moved to New York City, and started The Velvet Underground. The band became one of the most influential rock bands of all time, despite the lack of huge commercial success. The band’s dark and avant-garde music focused on the underground lives in Manhattan and portrayed drug use, sadomasochism and decadence. [vi]
Just as Bangs said in his review of White Light/White Heat, this expression of nihilism was what he valued in music. After seeing an ad for readers’ reviews in Rolling Stone, Bangs sent the review to the magazine, but they didn’t publish it. He got his break when Rolling Stone decided to publish his review of The Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album, which he loved.
In 1969, Bangs finally met Reed. He managed to get backstage at a Velvet Underground concert in Los Angeles. Witnesses said he received a frost reception. Bangs tried to discuss drugs and music with Reed, but Reed dismissed Bangs and the other band members scoffed at him. Despite this, Bangs still loved the band’s music, and he continued to measure every band by The Velvet Underground—his rock paradigm. [vii]
But his rock paradigm shifted when Reed left the band to embark on a solo career. Even though Reed sneered Bangs at their first meeting, Bangs still praised the musicians first solo album. He said, “It wasn’t going to set the world on fire, but when it comes to songwriters for our time, Lou Reed is the best.” [viii]
Yet, as Reed continued to release solo albums, Bangs’ critical opinion of the music changed, and his opinion of Reed continued to deteriorate.
In addition to his reviews, Bangs was known for his interviews with Lou Reed. In his reviews, Bangs would weave his criticism of the music into the stories, which detailed the interactions between the two. The first of these epic interviews, “Deaf Mute in a Telephone Booth: A Perfect Day with Lou Reed,” appeared in Creem magazine and demonstrated Bangs’ growing distaste for both Reed and his music. The editors at Creem dubbed the interview Round One in the battle between Bangs and Reed. The interview came right after Reed’s second album, Transformer. Bangs’ praise for the first solo record quickly took a turn. On Transformer, Lou Reed followed the trajectory of David Bowie and remade himself as a gender-bending glam rocker. Lester hated it. He liked The Velvet Underground’s portraits of the decadent Andy Warhol crowed, drug users and the world of alternative sexualities, but he felt Reed reduced everything to a pose and to caricatures. In the article, he called Transformer a “comic strip that transcended itself.” In 1973 he referenced this in a Creem cover story called “Androgyny in Rock” when he said, “Will the real homosexuals please stand up?” [ix]
In the Round One interview, Bangs wrote, “The audiences, however, usually love the show, and it’s gratifying to see them flood down to the stage at least, giving Lou Reed the adulation he’s deserved for so long. It’s only when you start to think about the basic lameness of his band, the dirgelike tempo at which he sings most of the songs, the generally funeral atmosphere, and the speculations that all this leads you into, that you begin to get bugged. Because Lou Reed’s finally got a chance at real sustained stardom, and he is blowing it. He’s still riding on the legend now, but people are going to get tired.” [x]
Although he definitely took some personal stabs at Reed in the article, this quote shows that Bangs was able to look at the musician and perform and take a critical stance, examining what his new image means in the music world. And despite everything, he still wanted Reed to succeed.
The next time Bangs interviewed Reed was in 1975. Reed had released three subsequent albums, one of which Bangs actually liked. But then Reed released Sally Can’t Dance in 1974, which Bangs hated.
Bangs called Sally Can’t Dance “an album that broke its own ankles going out of every seasoned Reed fan’s way to make all possible concessions to commercialism on the lowest level of palatable pap, and get that crappy platter in the Top Ten.” [xi]
In the second interview, or Round Two, Bangs spent all night in Reed’s hotel after a show. Reports from other people present said it was basically hours of them yelling and hurling insults at each other. Bangs wrote, “I told him that in my estimation the majority of his solo work suffered principally by its obviousness, all the subtlety left ages ago and he’s just an old ham cradling the asp.” Bangs even included Reed’s best jabs in the article, including Reeds quip, “You used to be able to write, and now you’re just full of shit.” [xii]
Reed had the last word when he told another publication, “He’s just a big schlub from Detroit. He’s fat and he’s got a mustache. I wouldn’t shit in Lester’s nose.” [xiii]
Then, Reed released Metal Machine Music. Many critics thought it was a hoax or scheme on Reed’s part to get out of his contract. The album avoided any hint of melody, rhythm, vocals and song structure. Lester loved it, and wrote several articles on it, some of which illustrated Bangs’ ability to analyze what this album means and demonstrates about the rock n’ roll star.
In one review, Bangs showcased his distinct writing style, which he said was writing that sounded like the music he listened to.
In the review he wrote:
“One day in the summer of 1975 I awoke with a hangover and put on Metal Machine Music immediately. I played it all day and through a party which lasted all that night, in the course of which I got shitfaced again on cognac and beer, broke about half my record collection, punched out the front screen door of my house …threw all the empty cognac bottles in the air as high as I could for the pleasure of watching them shatter in the street, ending up in a blackout coma stupor, which nevertheless never blacked me out quite enough to stop me from writhing on the couch, tearing at my hair and screaming at the top of my lungs, until the police came at seven a.m. whereupon I snapped to and told them that my friends, who were now out in the street breaking beer bottles and yelling MACHINE! MACHINE! MACHINE! Up at my bedroom window had gotten a little rowdy and I would be responsible for them from here on out.” [xiv]
One article on the album was called “How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying, or Louie Come Home, All is Forgiven.” In it, Bangs opened with a declaration that “This is not Round Three.” Instead, he put aside his personal distaste for Reed and acclaimed Metal Machine Music as the best album ever.
He also wrote an article where he detailed 17 reasons why the album was the greatest album ever. Some of these reasons included “If you ever thought feedback was the best thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got ride of the guitars” and “MMM is Lou’s soul. If there’s one thing he would like to see buried in a time capsule, this is it.” [xv]
In 1976 Bangs ceased his criticism of Lou Reed. Peter Laughner, a fellow critic who got his start when Bangs asked him to write for Creem after they shared a correspondence, died that year. The two critics shared an obsession with Reed. Laughner even wrote a review of one of Reed’s albums that was similar in tone to Bangs’ MMM review. Bangs wrote Laughner’s obituary and in it promised to never write about Reed again. He wrote, “I would not walk across the street today to spit on Lou Reed, not because of Peter, but because Peter’s death was the end of an era for me—an era of the most intense worship of nihilism and deathtripping in all marketable forms.” In the majority of Bangs’ criticism, he praises Reed’s records for the nihilistic nature of the music, but after his friend died, Bangs wanted to turn away from that. He said, “It may be time to begin thing in terms of heroes again, of love instead of hate, of energy instead of violence, of strength instead of cruelty, of action instead of reaction.” [xvi]
Bangs tried to change his life too. In 1981 he started attending the “rock-n-roll” Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It so happened that Lou Reed was a member of the same group. However, the two never spoke to each other.[xvii]
Bangs kept his promise not to write about Reed, except once. In 1979 he wrote a review of Reed’s album The Bells in Rolling Stone, dedicating the critique to Peter. This review shows how Bangs’ change in attitude coincided with Reed’s change in music. And once again, Bangs loved the art of Lou Reed. He said the album was Reed’s best solo LP and called it great art, but of course he opened the review with a jab at Reed. Bangs wrote, “Lou Reed is a prick and a jerkoff who frequently commits the ultimate sin of treating his audience with contempt. He’s also a person with deep compassion for a great many other people about whom almost nobody else gives a shit.” He went on to say, “You gave us reason to think there might still be meaning to be found in this world beyond all the nihilism…This album is about love and dread—and redemption through a strange commingling of the two.” [xviii]
Looking at the last two major criticism Bangs wrote on Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music pieces and his review The Bells, its clear that Bangs saw Reed as a despicable person but he didn’t let that color the way he saw Reed’s music. After Laughner died and Bangs’ tried to turn his life around, he no longer valued the dark and destructive worship of nihilism in music. Instead, he valued the ability to rise above that nihilism. He valued love and compassion. It just so happened, that simultaneously, Reed’s art changed as well. Reed no longer just painted portraits of alternative lifestyles, but instead wrote musical poetry about love and rising above the destruction. In the end, they were on the same page.
I wonder how much Bangs’ writings affected what Reed did throughout his career—did Bangs’ disapproval of the glam rock make him change or did his obituary to his friend make Reed realize it was also time for change? We know Reed’s music affected Bangs. Bangs found solace in it as a troubled teenager, but I think Reed’s music also eventually helped Bangs realize he didn’t love those dark themes anymore. Looking at the relationship between Bangs as the critic and Reed as the artist reveals not only the work of both men, but also the power of music and the power of criticism of music.
[i] Lewis, Richard, and Susan I. Lewis. The Power of Art. (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2009) 376.
[ii] Soloski, Alexis. “Critics Shouldn’t Befriend Artists.” The Guardian. 09 Apr. 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2009/apr/09/critics-befriend-actors-playwrights-facebook>
[iii] Harrington, Richard. “Guns N’Roses, Back in Fighting Form.” The Washington Post. 16 Sept. 1991.
[iv] DeRogaits, Jim. Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs. (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2000) 15-37.
[v] DRogatis, 45.
[vii] DeRogatis, 55.
[viii] DeRogatis, 87.
[ix] DeRogatis, 87-88.
[x] Bangs, Lester, and John Morthland. Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: a Lester Bangs Reader. (New York: Anchor, 2003) 199.
[xi] Bangs, Lester, and Greil Marcus. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. (New York: Knopf, 1988). 169-170.
[xii] Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. 179-181.
[xiii] DeRogatis, 92.
[xiv] DeRogatis, 107.
[xv] Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. 195-200.
[xvi] Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. 221.
[xviii] Bangs, Lester. “The Bells.” Rolling Stone. 14 June 1979. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. < http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/the-bells-19790614>