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Music moved him; his writing moves us

By GINA VIVINETTO, Times pop music critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2000

They who are to be judges must also be performers. - Aristotle

Most pop music geeks I know enjoy reading about music as much as they like listening to it. That's why rock writers write big books about rock stars and geeks like us gobble them up. Fans want to know musicians' life stories, the backstage antics, the scoop on the stars' love lives, their addictions and anecdotes about how they write their tunes.

Some rock writers give the scoop with such flair or convey music's powerful message so forcefully or artfully that they become interesting themselves.

Such was the case with the late Lester Bangs. Bangs wrote about rock 'n' roll in the 1970s heyday of rock journalism. He did it with such edge and eloquence that his columns and rants in Rolling Stone and later Creem, where he made his name, were considered art. In fact, Bangs, who died at 33 in 1982 after ingesting a lethal combination of drugs, often eclipsed the performers he was writing about.

A denizen of the downtown New York art scene during the 1970s, Bangs lived the life of rock excess. He was a hopeless romantic who believed in the transformative power of music. Roommates would find Bangs sleeping on the sofa with Little Richard blasting so loud on his headphones it woke them.

Bangs did drugs and drank too much, staying up all night writing reams of impassioned text on the music that moved him. In search of the romantic love that eluded him, and living the life of the eternal adolescent, Bangs eventually hung out with the rock stars he wrote about: Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and particularly Lou Reed, with whom Bangs shared a well-known love-hate relationship, much of it in print.

Bangs himself became so celebrated that he is the subject of Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic, a recently released biography by music journalist Jim DeRogatis. It is the first biography of a pop music writer. And it's a beautiful book.

Let It Blurt conveys that Bangs made no secret of his fandom, the effect these people's art had on him. Nor did he hesitate to say when he didn't like what he was hearing. Bangs wrote provocatively about his disillusionment with the social politics of the Clash, and how the band treated fans on tour, as well as rants about the racism of the punk rock scene.

The best of Bangs' writing can be found in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1987), edited by Greil Marcus, another well-known pop music/pop culture writer. Marcus, infinitely more scholarly, infinitely more highbrow than Bangs, called his pal "the best writer in America."

There is no music book I recommend more than Psychotic Reactions. Bangs' rants are sometimes maddening and frustrating, but always illuminating. He used music to talk about bigger issues: race, homophobia, gender, love, loneliness.

There's a reason I keep a pic of Bangs on my desk at work. The guy moves me. He makes me think on many levels about music and our culture. Bangs reminds me that music is powerful. It has the ability to transform. It is a gift.

Bangs had a gift, too.

Hold that thought

All right, eggheads, put the book down, get out and see some of these shows:

TOOTS & THE MAYTALS: 8 p.m. Friday, Skipper's Smokehouse, 910 Skipper Road, Tampa, (813) 977-6474 Tickets are $15 advance through Ticketmaster, $18 at the door.

Pioneers of reggae (see Audio Files), Toots & the Maytals have mixed Jamaican rhythms with American R&B since the late 1960s.

DAMON FOWLER GROUP: 8 p.m. Saturday, Skipper's Smokehouse. Tickets are $5.

Damon Fowler, who started playing blues guitar at age 12 and has opened for Delbert McClinton, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck and Johnny Winter, brings his licks to Skipper's. Expect a fiery show. Fowler's seasoned now; he's 20.

JEREMY LYONS AND THE DELTABILLY BOYS: 5 p.m. Sunday, Skipper's Smokehouse. Tickets are $5.

Jeremy Lyons and his rockabilly band just finished playing the Jazz Fest at home in New Orleans. Expect a mix of swing, Delta blues and good old-fashioned roots rock 'n' roll (with a stand-up bass!). Lyons is one of the finest young finger pickin' slide guitarists out there.

COOL JAZZ AND HOT FUN JAZZFEST: 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The Livingroom, 13707 58th St. N (next to ICOT Center off Ulmerton Road and State Road 688), Clearwater, (813) 977-4797. Tickets are $8 advance by calling (813) 977-4797, or $10 at the door.

This is the first event for the newly organized fest, which features local jazz artists playing everything from Latin jazz to fusion. This weekend's event includes smooth jazz harpist Robert Garcia; child prodigy Eric Darius, a 16-year-old saxophonist; and vocalist Richard Jackson of Theo Valentin's Jazz Band.

NAKED POETRY.COM "WE HAVE ISSUES" OPEN MIKE: 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Irish Pub, 1721 Seventh Ave., Ybor City, (813) 251-6134, http://www.nakedpoetry.com.

Celebrate the NakedPoetry.com online zine's latest issue, which contains poetry and writing by Mark Amerika of Alt-X, Mark Rothenberg, poet Sparrow, Weekly Planet's Dave Jasper and "Sex Accessory Commentator" Delores G. Spaught. Join zinesters RhondaK and Annie Vox for an open mike and the chance to win prizes and participate in a "group therapy." The event will be videotaped for possible airing on Time Warner cable.

GROOVEWELL CONCERT SERIES: 9 p.m. Wednesday, the Orpheum, 1902 Republica de Cuba (corner of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue), Ybor City, (813) 254-0759, http://www.groovewell.com.

The Groovewell Series, celebrating cross-cultural musical diversity, continues with performances by Bradley Morewood and Rocksteady. Morewood is a spoken word artist who will be backed by a jazz-funk-groove-worldbeat band including Indian tabla player Vijay Ghate, who has played with guitar luminary Larry Coryell.

Rocksteady is a local supergroup featuring members of Magadog, Strangeways and Amandla Tunesmith. The band plays classic Jamaican music, late 1960s-style ska and rootsy reggae. Lots of trumpet, sax and danceable rhythms.

CEREBRAL ARTS FESTIVAL III: 4 p.m. to midnight, Jannus Landing courtyard, downtown St. Petersburg, (727) 898-4214, Admission is $5.

Designed to create an interactive relationship among artists of different media, the festival includes an event (9:30 p.m.) featuring music by local band Tricycle ("Miles Davis meets Pink Floyd"), an improvised painting by Thomas Murray, ice sculpture by Tim Thompson, performance art by fire breather Monique, world dance by Karen & Co., as well as a community canvas and sculpture.

Before the spontaneous art, check out Soulful Grooves, a DJ set by local mix masters Tres and J. Webber (4 to 7 p.m.), funk band 28Gates (7 to 8:30 p.m.) and Valerie Rose's postmodern fashion show (8:30 to 9:15 p.m.).

TEAM POP TRIVIA: The winner of the random drawing for last week's question is Tim Donnelly of Pinellas Park. Donnelly knew that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was on the Billboard charts for a whopping 741 weeks, the longest any album has been on any chart. Break it down, and that's more than 14 years. We at Team Pop headquarters got many responses with different figures, but don't quibble, I called my homies at Billboard to make sure.

THIS WEEK'S QUESTION: In honor of Lester Bangs, "America's greatest rock critic," tell me what album Bangs was listening to on April 30, 1982, the night he died after ingesting a lethal combination of Valium and Darvon.

Fax entries to Team Pop Trivia, (727) 892-2327, send e-mail to gina@sptimes.com or send your entry in an envelope as our ancestors used to: Team Pop Trivia, c/o Weekend, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33713. All mailed entries must be postmarked by Saturday (the day after we ask the question). Faxes and e-mail can come as late as Monday morning. Please include your full name and phone number.

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