Note: I wrote this mini-memoir for one of the neo-Creem projects of recent years, but it wasn’t used.
By the spring of 1974, I’d been corresponding with Lester Bangs for a year or so, and he’d given me my first-ever paid publication in Creem, a review of Mark Shipper’s Sonics reissue album, in the May 1974 number. My wife, Teresa, who’d heard the name “Lester” mentioned reverently around our apartment dozens of times by now, decided that it was time to move the relationship to the next level, so she embroidered a hippie-crafts cloth patch that said, “LESTER BANGS IS MY IDOL”, and mailed it off to the great man. A few days later, he phoned to thank Teresa, while I was at work at the welfare office, and the two of them had an engaging conversation which culminated in Lester inviting us up to Dee-troit to meet him.
One Saturday in June, we parked our daughter with Grandma and headed our VW Beetle up I-75 to Michigan. The Creem office was closed for the weekend, so we went right to 416 Brown St. in Birmingham, the house Lester shared with several other staffers and friends, in a kind of communal arrangement more hippie than punk — we were still in the early ’70s, after all. Lester turned out to be a very friendly and generous guy, and we felt at ease with him immediately.
We began discussing the rockcritical phenomenon that had brought us together, and I told Lester my plan to do more and more freelance writing, until I’d be earning enough that I could quit the welfare department and write full-time. Lester took all this in, and then snorted with cheerful sarcasm, “There’s no money in rockwriting!! Do you know what I get paid here?!? Eighty-five dollars a week!” I quickly calculated that I was already making about twice that figure as just-another-caseworker. The rockcritical genius who’d given us “James Taylor Marked for Death” and so many other pieces that had ignited my brain for good was worth only $85. a week?!? The climb to writerly independence might be a lot longer than I’d hoped . . .
I got another jolt to the Olympian aura I’d built up around Lester’s master-writer persona when he showed us his bedroom in the Brown Street house — it was a tiny cubicle piled halfway up the walls with stacks of record albums and copies of Penthouse, Oui, Gallery, and all the other glossy sex magazines flourishing at the time. There was just barely room for Lester’s bed among all the media, and I thought, “Man, Lester’s defined the Velvet Underground for the ages, yet he’s hardly got a pot to beat off in . . . I dunno about all this!” Lester seemed ever more cheerful as showed us around his Bukowskian digs.
Back in the living room, he stood before us and announced, “Now listen — a lot of people have been saying I look like Rob Reiner. You two take a good look at me, and tell me, do I really look like Reiner?!?” We stared at Lester’s tall, bulky frame, his shaggy hair, at that luxuriant black mustache, and recognized a reasonable stunt double for Rob Reiner if he ever needed one. But we lied, “Not at all, Lester!” — I wasn’t going to disillusion him further after seeing how he had to sleep alone among those tottering skyscrapers of skin magazines. “Well, you’re my friends then!” Lester exclaimed triumphantly.
It was time for a drink. Lester rounded up housemate Wes Goodwin, then Creem‘s resident cartoonist, and we all piled into the VW and drove to a bar on Woodward Avenue Lester liked. We guys were ordering beers up at the counter while Teresa sat at a table in the dimly-lit interior. The bartender hesitated to serve Teresa, as he thought she might be too young — I assured him that she was all of 26, but he came out from behind the bar to get a better look at her face. He’d gone only a few steps toward her when he shouted, “Oh yeah — she’s okay!” Lester found this on-sight method of age verification totally hilarious, and that and the beer seemed to make his mood even more sanguine.
After dinner on our own, we got back together with Lester and his friends at the Brown Street house, and spent the evening sitting on the couch, discussing the music scene as we watched TV. CBS had a really strong lineup of sitcoms on Saturday evenings then — Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, All in the Family(!!), and we watched the whole set, which Lester pronounced “The best thing on TV these days.” After the sitcoms and the news, the late movie was the Susan Hayward prison drama I Want to Live, which somehow seemed like the perfect existential coda to our momentous day.
Teresa and I repaired to the Royal Oak motel room we’d rented in the afternoon. It was cheap and vacancy had been no problem, but I began to wonder about its edification quotient when I found a partly-used tube of K-Y Jelly in the drawer of the nightstand. Teresa and I dropped off to sleep, only to be awakened every half-hour on the dot throughout the night, by the same woman’s orgasmic screams from the room next door. Sounded like she had an efficient in-and-out operation going on there.
When we got back together with Lester after breakfast, I advised him of the sexual-commerce-with-sound-effects evidently taking place at our motel, and this revelation made him inordinately happy. He kept talking and laughing about it. This was the season of Lester’s legendary confrontations with his old idol Lou Reed, after all, and I think he welcomed any additional examples of human corruption that would reinforce his cheerfully bleak worldview.
Lester wanted to show us the Creem office before we left town, but he’d lost his keys, and we couldn’t get in, as no one else was there on Sunday morning. Lester considered phoning fellow editor Ben Edmonds to borrow his keys, but finally decided against that, as he seemed nervous about disturbing Ben that early. As a consolation, we simply drove by Creem World Headquarters, and Lester pointed out his window, decorated with the Christmas card his crush Anne Murray had sent him the year before. Driving back to Lester’s house, I saw a billboard for the Michigan Lottery, and told him Ohio was starting a lottery later that summer, from which I hoped to win enough sooner or later to support my fulltime-writer dream — maybe he should give that a try too. “Naw,” said Lester, “I’ve never been lucky with things like that.”
Just before we left, Lester took us down into the basement of his house, to look through his stack of discarded promo albums, and told me to take anything I wanted. I selected three different Move LP’s, among other castoffs, but when I showed him the recent Dana Gillespie album, he waved his hand and made a face — I left that one there. Then Lester gave me a copy of Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power album as a parting gift — he said he’d had Columbia send him 25 of them when it came out, as he wanted to spread around his belief in the set. We said good-bye to Lester, standing there by his dusty red and black ’67 Camaro with open paperback books littering the dashboard, and headed home to Cincinnati.