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Lester Bangs: The Rolling Stones’ Nostradamus

The brilliant rock critic predicted the Stones’ longevity. Plus, going through Ronnie Woods’s trash.

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While it is no longer a burning issue (although those of a certain age might disagree), answering the question “Beatles or Stones?” can still tell you something about yourself: Is your favorite rock movie from the 1960s the madcap A Hard Day’s Night or the chthonic Gimme Shelter?

Such questions will drift through the ether as long as civilization exists, right along with “Leonardo or Michelangelo?” and “Magic or Bird?” But the Beatles broke up in 1970, while the Rolling Stones were still touring as recently as last summer. Which gives us plenty of post-Sixties Stones lore to choose from. After launching our first Music Monday with the Beatles last week, we bring you tales of the Rolling Stones in New York City in the 1980s.

In the July 23, 1980, issue the always heartfelt rock critic Lester Bangs wrote that it had taken “ten thousand varyingly voluntary rehearings” for he and a friend to actually like the Stones’ 1978 Some Girls album. The pair discussed whether the band should break up on such a high note and Bangs’s friend said it would be better if the Stones were still “grinding away at the same Chuck Berry licks when they’re 60 years old!”

Bangs added, “Go ahead and laugh, but they’re probably going to do exactly that, and after panning just about everything they released in the ’70s I’ve had a change of heart. You tell me whether it has something to do with turning 30 and all that, but what I said to another friend the other night in a similar conversation was, ‘Shit, yeah, let’s all grow old with the Rolling Stones. I can think of worse things.’ ”

Unfortunately, Bangs didn’t live as long as any of the Stones he was writing about in 1980. (The band’s founder, Brian Jones, had died in 1969.) Bangs would be dead two years later, from an accidental overdose of various medications. In a letter supposedly written by Bangs from the afterlife (it can be found in the collection of his rock criticism, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung), he tells his friend, Dave Marsh, “You know that jive about ‘If there’s a rock & roll heaven, they must have a hell of a band’? Don’t believe it, pal. All the talent went straight to Hell.” He concludes, “Gotta run. Literally. Another herd of hoary Harp hacks heading here. Playing Zep’s ‘Stairway’ of course. Fucking national anthem in this burg.”

Marsh may have only been channeling Bangs’s style, but in the Voice article from 38 years ago you get a dose of the real stuff as Bangs ruminates that the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band” has “got this stuff down to a science, yet they’re still having fun with it, they haven’t gone embarrassingly cold and dead like, say, the Post–Who’s Next Who.”

And from 1987 we have dug up a story about two dumpster’s worth of trash left behind when Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood vacated his Manhattan brownstone. Writer Catherine Breslin retrieved a passel of water-stained sketches, some by the musician himself, a few by his daughter Leah. Plus some song lyrics — “I can’t stand here cryin’ at your door/Neighbours put their lights on for sure” — smudged by dog turds.

Even the biggest stars have their off days.

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