The Devil and Sonny Liston Back in the early 1970s, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, and Nick Tosches were longhaired young malcontents who sometimes drank together while each tried to make…
Review

The Devil and Sonny Liston

EW's GRADE
A

Back in the early 1970s, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, and Nick Tosches were longhaired young malcontents who sometimes drank together while each tried to make a living as a rock critic. From the start, each had a distinctive voice, and each used the fluid medium of music journalism to his own subversive ends (as Tosches later put it, the game was to write ''pretty much whatever one wanted, as long as it was under the pretext of writing about rock 'n' roll''). Along the way, all three became great writers.

Bangs, who died in 1982 of what a New York medical examiner called a Darvon overdose (though some have other theories), casts the longest shadow. He is arguably the only rock critic, dead or alive, whose life and achievements warrant a book-length examination. Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic by Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis, is a warts-and-all look at this woefully self-destructive genius. The basic facts: Bangs, the product of a troubled home, grew up in El Cajon, Calif., gravitating early to beat prose, jazz, and rock (not to mention drugs and alcohol). He was a shoe salesman when he began freelancing for Rolling Stone in 1969, but by 1971 he'd become the star staffer at Creem (''America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine''). He continued to write prolifically for numerous publications until his death. A wordsmith of uncommon eloquence and endless passion, he documented — and helped shape — both heavy metal and punk; his work (some of which can be found in the posthumous collection, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) continues to inspire admirers and imitators.

As DeRogatis makes painfully clear, Bangs' personal life was a shambles. A world-class substance abuser, Bangs once called burning out ''the central heroic myth of the sixties,'' coining a credo — ''live fast, be bad, get messy, die young'' — and fulfilling it. The final chapters of Blurt, which document his free fall into an alcoholic abyss, are as riveting as the last third of Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas (and more depressing). DeRogatis wisely offsets the horror of Bangs' final years by including a postscript by the great man himself, a howlingly funny 1974 essay called ''How to Be a Rock Critic'' that should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in music journalism.

Richard Meltzer's more outre stuff makes Bangs look positively staid. The 1970 publication of his first book, The Aesthetics of Rock, made him a big cheese in the demimonde of music critics, but his predilection for over-the-top mischief soon got him all but excommunicated from the fold. In A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer, he outlines his early mind-set: ''Operating under the premise that pranks 'n' antics were the basic, irreducible nub of any 'true' rock experience...I'd do things like throw rubber snakes at publicists, dance on tabletops at press parties, review (harshly) albums I'd obviously never listened to (or concerts I'd never attended), reverse the word sequence of a text to make it read backwards...so by '74, it was pretty much g'bye for me.''

Not quite. Meltzer's done a heap of writing since then, plenty of it about his love-hate (or is that just hate?) affair with rock. You'll find more than 30 years of his best work here, accompanied by fresh (and hilarious) commentary. His appetite for debunking hubris and biting hands that feed is apparent in every barbed record review, cranky rant, and sarcastic star profile. Looking for madcap invention, unabashed honesty, gleeful shamelessness? Meltzer's your man, and Whore's your book.

If Meltzer is essentially a supremely talented recorder of his own mind, Tosches has found a way to successfully meld nuts-and-bolts journalism with a sardonic solipsism. As his new collection, The Nick Tosches Reader, makes clear, his early work wasn't as consistently mind-bending as Bangs' or Meltzer's. Reading through these chronologically arranged selections, however, you come to understand that Tosches — equal parts sneering cynic and visionary poet — became as unique a stylist as either of his peers.

Having written acclaimed biographies of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis, in The Devil and Sonny Liston Tosches turns his attention to a nonmusician, an illiterate, much-maligned, and feared boxer who was in many ways the Mike Tyson of his time. Fortified by a plethora of talkative sources, Tosches' hard-bitten prose is well suited to the task of bringing Liston, and the criminals who masterminded his career, to vividly seedy life. Like the Martin bio, the book has already been optioned by Hollywood, making Tosches one of the few music writers to make the leap to the big leagues. What a gas — and what an inspiration for aging rock critics. Blurt: A- Whore: A Tosches: B Liston: A

Originally posted Apr 21, 2000 Published in issue #536 Apr 21, 2000 Order article reprints