- Photo by Chuck Pulin
In 1969, Lester Bangs launched his career as a rock critic with a review of MC5’s debut album, Kick Out the Jams. In less than 500 words, he made hash of the proto-punk classic, dismissing the band as pretentious, over-hyped and suffering from a “paucity of ideas.” Published in Rolling Stone, the review is classic Bangs—caustic, perceptive and infuriating.
From the late ’60s until his death in 1982, Bangs solidified his reputation as a great American rock critic, churning out hilariously sarcastic reviews and ferociously brilliant essays for Rolling Stone, Creem and The Village Voice, among others. When he wrote that MC5 review, though, the Escondido-born writer was still living in his mom’s apartment in El Cajon, where he attended El Cajon Valley High School and Grossmont College.
Grossmont College’s creative-writing department will pay tribute to Bangs on Wednesday, Oct. 17, with the fourth annual Lester Bangs Memorial Reading. For the event, nine authors will read stories and poems about East County, accompanied by local band Labs.
The event also commemorates the release of The Far East: Everything Just As It Is, a new book themed around East County to which all the event’s readers contributed. Though the book doesn’t focus on Bangs, editor Mindy Solis takes a lot of inspiration from him.
“He’s just this strange role model. He walked the same halls as me,” she says, noting that she also attended El Cajon Valley High and Grossmont College. “He was this great rock critic who wrote with fury and didn’t apologize for his opinions, and I think that’s such a rarity nowadays.”
Just consider Bangs’ MC5 review. While many listeners would disagree with what he wrote—Rolling Stone later hailed the record as one of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”—it’s a must-read for any aspiring critic, because it shows Bangs cutting through the fog of hype with great skill.
Unlike other critics of the day, Bangs rejects the comparison of MC5’s riffs to the free-jazz of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Instead, he points to much more accurate comparisons, like Blue Cheer, The Troggs and The Who. With that, Bangs teaches an important lesson: As much as we like to confer lofty comparisons on our favorite buzz-bands, sometimes all they’re doing is ripping off other buzz-bands.