Critics aren’t the most obvious subjects for drama. But if anyone qualified for a theatrical presentation, it would be the late Lester Bangs, whose caffeinated, take-few-prisoners prose and rock & roll–animal image (accurate or not) made him nearly as iconic as the musicians he loved, dissected or trashed.
Bangs, who died of a drug-related overdose in 1982 at 33, has been immortalized in two anthologies, a biography (Jim DeRogatis’ well-researched Let It Blurt), and a movie (Philip Seymour Hoffman played Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous). And now comes the play: After premiering on the West Coast in 2015, a Bangs bio-show, How to Be a Rock Critic, has taken up a limited-run Off-Broadway residence at New York’s Public Theater through January 15th.
Directed by Jessica Blank and starring her creative partner Erik Jensen as Bangs, the show amounts to a 90-minute pop-in to Bangs in his New York apartment during the last days of his life, after he’s been up for 30-plus hours trying to write a record review. On a set overrun with LPs, beer cans and record crates, Jensen fully inhabits Bangs, from his bipolar rants (excitable boy one moment, soul-searching adult the next) to a comb-averse wig. The show also incorporates a degree of audience interaction, with Jensen-as-Bangs tossing out a beer here or there or asking the audience to guess what band he’s about to pontificate on.
All of which can make Bangs seem like a caricature: With his T-shirt and ripped-knee jeans, Jensen looks and sounds like a modern blogger (albeit one with a typewriter, not a laptop) reviewing an unexpected Radiohead album drop. But with its biographical structure, How to Be a Rock Critic explores the dark corners of Bangs’ life. In a monologue drawn from Bangs’ own writings and interviews, we’re reminded of Bangs’ fun-free Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, the death-by-fire of his estranged father, Bangs’ early insecurities, his harrowing experience witnessing a biker gang-bang, his professional late-Sixties breakthrough with Rolling Stone (which he amply criticizes) and his glory years at the aptly irreverent Creem magazine in the early-to-mid–Seventies.
Anyone who read Bangs during his heyday – or caught up with his work posthumously – will recognize many of these words: his raves about noisy faves like the Velvet Underground and Stooges, his putdown of James Taylor (“marked for death”), his dislike of mainstream acts like Styx and Kenny Loggins, his love and morbid fascination with Elvis. (Bangs’ longtime writer friends, Billy Altman and the late John Morthland, served as consultants on How to Be a Rock Critic, and it shows). One minute Jensen conjures Bangs’ infectious energy (practically conducting as he plays Troggs or Van Morrison records for the audience, hoping to indoctrinate them to his tastes), and the next he soberly captures Bangs’ growing disillusionment with rock, rock culture, and his career and role in the music world.
Sometimes, these moments happen simultaneously. Recalling the time a combative Bangs was talked into joining the J. Geils Band onstage with his typewriter, Jensen captures Bangs’ moment of onstage glory – and his post-show awakening, as he watches female fans swarm around Wolf and Bangs walks home alone. You marvel at the way rock & roll elevated and inspired Bangs. But during a recreation of a particularly disheartening encounter with the Clash, you also wonder if Bangs was expecting too much of the music and, especially, the musicians.
According to Let It Blurt and other accounts, Bangs was far from down and out before his death; he was in the midst of several book projects and had attended AA meetings. Here, though, he seems nearly defeated, bummed when his hero Lou Reed dismisses him as “full of shit” and grappling with his current work, which he dismisses as “stilted.” Throughout the show, Jensen-as-Bangs is constantly in search of his copy of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, his favorite album. When he finally stumbles up on it, he cranks “Cyprus Avenue” and talks, with a sense of hope, about how the greatest rock & roll can bring “a sense of wonder about life itself.” Even as it ends with Bangs’ death, How to Be a Rock Critic makes the case that his journey, like that of any music fan in search of transcendence, can be a wonder too.