“A hero is a goddamn stupid thing to have,” legendary rock critic Lester Bangs said two weeks ago. Actually, it was actor Erik Jensen, impersonating Bangs — his hero. The setting was a rehearsal room at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in the Culver City neighborhood of Los Angeles, where Jensen and director Jessica Blank were working on the one-man play they wrote about Bangs (who died in 1982, at age 33), How to Be a Rock Critic. On a set depicting Bangs’ living room, cluttered with stacks of vinyl records and empty bottles of beer and cough syrup, Jensen brought Bangs back to life, right down to the mustache and the DETROIT SUCKS T-shirt: hectoring, joking, lecturing, fumbling towards a state of grace.
Bangs was a regular contributor to Rolling Stone (until he got fired), but probably did his best work for the rival publication Creem; he is also remembered as the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous. His work has been compiled in two books, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, volumes that demonstrate why he was considered by many to be America’s greatest rock critic: raw, funny, moral, a lover of both noise and beauty, always willing to contradict himself. To put together the play, Jensen and Blank read the entire body of Bangs’ work, both published and unpublished, which they estimate at about 15,000 typed pages. “He was a savant and he did a lot of speed,” Blank noted. “Erik Xeroxed it all.” (Then they retyped it all as computer files, a process that took about two years.)
“It was on onionskin paper,” Jensen enthused. “Worms had eaten through some of the paper. You could smell Lester coming out of the box. It was fantastic.”
Blank and Jensen interrupt each other with the ease of a married couple, which they are: they wed while working on their award-winning documentary play The Exonerated, based on interviews with wrongfully convicted death-row inmates. “This is not documentary theater,” Blank said of How to Be a Rock Critic. “It’s an adaptation — but he wrote in such a personal way, we treated his body of work like one big interview with Lester.”
Jensen discovered the work of Bangs at age 10, when his parents were getting divorced and he was staying with his cousin: “Under his bed, I don’t think there was any pornography, but there were these tattered copies of Rolling Stone and Creem. Reading Lester’s work, I felt a sense of connection. I could tell that as a writer and an artist and an appreciator of music, he really demanded honesty from people. And in the house I grew up in, honesty was in short supply.” So what’s it like playing Bangs as an adult? “When I’m living in him, I want to drink as much as I can and eat as much as I can and read as much as I can. It’s a mental state of excess.”
“There’s something so alive and visceral about the language,” Blank said. “When I first read Lester’s writing, I was like, I have no idea how this is a play, but he’s a brilliant writer and a fascinating person.”
Even in an early rehearsal where Jensen periodically called for lines, the spirit of Bangs proved to be electrifying. At one point, Jensen stumbled over some dialogue and broke character to complain, “How many verbs are in that sentence?”
Blank, sitting on the lip of the stage with her legs splayed perpendicular, instructed him, “Just do it.”
“Yes, darling,” Jensen agreed, and then told the production staff, “It’s a good thing I’m sleeping with the director.”
How to Be a Rock Critic, presented by the Center Theatre Group and South Coast Repertory, opens on June 17th and is scheduled to run through June 28th. The play would probably stand as the most unlikely theatrical adaptation of rock criticism ever, if not for the 1999 production of Greil Marcus’ cultural history Lipstick Traces by the Rude Mechanicals of Austin, Texas. “We want the audience to come out of the play having heard music through Lester’s ears,” Blank said.
After the run-through, Jensen suggested beginning the show by playing side one of Lou Reed’s famously unlistenable Metal Machine Music, which provoked some of Bangs’ best writing. “Then whoever was left in the theater would be allowed to see the play.”
Blank smiled indulgently at her sweaty, mustachioed husband. “I would never allow that to happen.”