Excess All Areas ; Forget `Spinal Tap'. Lester Bangs Was Rock's Most Debauched Chronicler, a Writer Who Lived Life at Maximum Volume. Now a New Film Celebrates His Explosive Career

Article excerpt

When I was a journalist at the NME, thrilled to have my byline in the same paper that had once employed Julie Burchill, Nick Kent and countless other journalistic godheads, a colleague and I erected a rather pitiful monument to the paper's heritage that we named the "Wall of Rock".

Digging through a photo file labelled "past writers", we had unearthed countless images that summed up the long-lost professional ideal to which we aspired: ludicrously dressed hacks, their hair tousled into the style du jour, perched behind typewriters, most apparently in a state of advanced disrepair. This was the life! Copy filed on the back of cereal packets, midnight summits at Keith Richards' country estate, Benzedrine binges in the office - somehow, the regimented, increasingly corporate world into which we had crash- landed simply didn't compare.

For anyone consumed by such a vision, there was a set text. Given the beguiling title Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, it was an anthology of writing by a man described as follows: "The great gonzo journalist, gutter poet, and romantic visionary of rock'n'roll writing - its Hunter S Thompson, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one." By a stroke of luck that lent his name an almost onomatopoeic quality, the author was called Lester Bangs.

He had died in New York aged 33, having overdosed on a potent downer called Darvon. Prior to that, he had - in cahoots with a gang of compadres known as "The Noise Boys" - established a style of writing that is now all but extinct. It was reckless, honest, self- indulgent, riven with contradictions - and always suffused with the idea that, to use John Lennon's words, there is nothing conceptually better than rock'n'roll. Dipping into Psychotic Reactions, it became instantly obvious that Bangs had the rare gift of encapsulating in prose what it feels like when you hear a truly fantastic (or heart- stoppingly awful) record.

For one reason and another, this year has seen Bangs' legend loom larger than ever. In July, the American journalist Jim DeRogatis published Let It Blurt, a Bangs biography that managed the feat of being both frenziedly celebratory and poignantly affecting. Six months on, Bangs has been brought to the big screen, thanks to Cameron Crowe's autobiographical movie Almost Famous, based on his teenage experience of 1970s rock journalism, which opens the London Film Festival tomorrow.

Crowe - who long since made the jump from music hackery to Hollywood - began writing when he was 15. At the time, Bangs was an editor at Creem, a Detroit-based title that claimed to be "America's Only Rock'n'Roll Magazine". Crowe had sent some try-out work to Bangs, and duly received an assignment - interviewing the British band Humble Pie. He kept his age a secret, sneaked into the club where the band were playing, and filed the piece. Crowe's next stop was the more upmarket Rolling Stone.

The movie, in which Crowe is re-christened William Miller, shows the pair meeting in San Diego. Bangs - played by Phillip Seymour Hoffmann - is a fount of advice, both professional and personal. He warns the impressionable youth not to get seduced by the music- business circus - the booze, the endless junkets, the free records. He also tells him not to fret about the fact that his classmates hate him: "You'll meet them again, on their way to the middle," he advises. His role in the movie is as a kind of Merlin figure - the guru, the keeper of the flame.

Bangs - christened Leslie - was born in Escondido, California, in 1948. His father, prone to binge- drinking, died in a house fire when Bangs was eight. Soon after, he endured a period of sexual abuse at the hands of a middle-aged neighbour. Adding to the tumult, his mother was a Jehovah's Witness, and duly conscripted her son into the faith - which, he later claimed, explained his evangelical take on rock music. …