Bangs was born in Escondido, in San Diego County, California. He was the son of Norma Belle (née Clifton) and Conway Leslie Bangs, a truck driver. Both of his parents were from Texas: his father from Enloe and his mother from Pecos County. Norma Belle was a devout Jehovah's Witness. Conway died in a fire when his son was young.
When Bangs was 11, he moved with his mother to El Cajon, also in San Diego County.
In 1969 Bangs became a freelance writer after reading an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting readers' reviews. His first piece was a negative review of the MC5 album Kick Out the Jams, which he sent to Rolling Stone with a note requesting that if the magazine were to decline to publish the review, he would be given a reason for the decision; no reply was forthcoming, as the magazine did indeed publish the review.
Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence. Vocals are sparse, most of the album being filled with plodding bass lines over which the lead guitar dribbles wooden Claptonisms from the master's tiredest Cream days. They even have discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitized speedfreaks all over each other's musical perimeters yet never quite finding synch—just like Cream! But worse.
Bangs wrote about the death of Janis Joplin in 1970 from a drug overdose: "It's not just that this kind of early death has become a fact of life that has become disturbing, but that it's been accepted as a given so quickly."
In 1973, Jann Wenner fired Bangs from Rolling Stone for "disrespecting musicians" after a particularly harsh review of the group Canned Heat.
Bangs began freelancing for Detroit-based Creem in 1970. In 1971, he wrote a feature for Creem on Alice Cooper, and soon afterward he moved to the Motor City. Named Creem's editor in 1971, Bangs fell in love with Detroit, calling it "rock's only hope," and remained there for five years.
Bangs's criticism was filled with cultural references, not only to rock music but also to literature and philosophy. He was known for his radical and critical style of working, apparent in this quotation:
Well basically I just started out to lead [an interview] with the most insulting question I could think of. Because it seemed to me that the whole thing of interviewing as far as rock stars and that was just such a suck-up. It was groveling obeisance to people who weren't that special, really. It's just a guy, just another person, so what?
On one occasion, while the J. Geils Band was playing in concert, Bangs climbed onto the stage, typewriter in hand, and typed a supposed review of the event, in full view of the audience.
Bangs was also a musician in his own right. In 1976, he and Peter Laughner recorded an acoustic improvisation in the Creem office. The recording included covers/parodies of songs like "Sister Ray" and "Pale Blue Eyes", both by the Velvet Underground.
In 1977, Lester recorded, as a solo artist, a 7" vinyl single named "Let It Blurt/Live", mixed by John Cale and released in 1979.
In 1977, at the famous New York City nightclub, CBGB's, while Lester was talking to guitarist Mickey Leigh, Joey Ramone's brother, the idea for a band named "Birdland" came to fruition. Although they both had their roots in jazz, the two wanted to create an old school rock & roll group. Leigh brought in his post-punk band, The Rattlers (David Merrill on bass; Matty Quick on drums), and cut "Birdland with Lester Bangs". The recording took place at the under renovation Electric Lady Studios. Bassist David Merrill, who was working on the construction of the studio, had the keys to the building and they snuck the band in on April Fool’s Day, 1979 for an impromptu and somewhat illegal late night recording session. The end result was a completely uncut and un-dubbed recording that displayed completely raw music. Birdland broke up within two months of this rare recording (in which the cassette tape from the session became the master, mixed by Ed Stasium and released by Leigh only in 1986).
In 1980 Lester Bangs traveled to Austin, Texas, and met a surf/punk rock group "The Delinquents". In early December of the same year, they recorded an album as "Lester Bangs and the Delinquents", entitled Jook Savages on the Brazos, released the following year.
In 1990 the Mekons released the EP F.U.N. 90 with Bangs' declamation in the song "One Horse Town".
Bangs is the subject of the song by Scott B. Sympathy "Lester Bangs Stereo Ghost" on the 1992 album Drinking With The Poet
Bangs is mentioned ("They kept alive the great casino sound, for Leslie Conway Bangs") in the Tullycraft song "If You Take Away the Make-Up (Then the Vampires They Will Die)" on the 2007 album Every Scene Needs a Center.
Bangs is mentioned ("The only thing I want to save is the image on your face when I show up at your prom with ghost of Lester Bangs; they yell for 'rock'!") in the Dillinger Four song "Our Science Is Tight.
In his 2012 biography of David Foster Wallace, D. T. Max writes, "Wallace admired Bangs's exultant prose, which probably came closer to the way Wallace talked than any other writing." Wallace and his co-author Mark Costello dedicated their book Signifying Rappers to Bangs.
In the 2000 movie Almost Famous, directed by Cameron Crowe (himself a former writer for Rolling Stone), Bangs is portrayed by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as a mentor to the film's protagonist William Miller. Hoffman himself had a drug related death.
^Bangs, Lester (2003). Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Anchor Books. pp. 8, 56, 57, 61, 64, 101 (reprints of articles originally published in 1971 and 1972 and referring to garage bands such as the Count Five and the Troggs as "punk"); p. 101 (associating Iggy and Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers with the Troggs and their ilk as "punk"); pp. 112–113 (describing the Guess Who as "punk"—the Guess Who had made recordings as a garage rock outfit in the mid 60s, such as their hit version of "Shakin' All Over" in 1965); p. 8 (general statement about "punk rock" (garage) as a genre: "then punk bands started cropping up who were writing their own songs but taking the Yardbirds' sound and reducing it to this kind of goony fuzztone clatter ... oh, it was beautiful, it was pure folklore, Old America, and sometimes I think those were the best days ever)"; p. 225 (reprint from an article originally published in the late 70s refers to garage bands as "punk"
^Marsh, D. Creem. May 1971 (review of live show by ? & the Mysterians Marsh describing their style as "a landmark exposition of punk rock.").
^Punk: The Whole Story. ed. M. Blake. 2006 Mojo Magazine, 2006. In the opening article, "Punk Rock Year Zero," the writer and former member of early Sex Pistols lineup Nick Kent discusses the influence of Lester Bangs on punk concept and aesthetic.
^Gray, M. (2004). The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town. Hal Leonard. p. 27 - Grey discusses how in the early 70s, while his mother was living overseas (in Detroit), she would send Mick Jones (later of the Clash) copies of Creem magazine and how writings by Bangs and others using the term punk rock influenced him.
^Gere, Charlie. (2005). Art, Time and Technology: Histories of the Disappearing Body. Berg. p. 110.