Jessica Blank’s “How To Be A Rock Critic” At The Public Theatre, Friday, January 12th, 2018, Reviewed
Directed by Jessica Blank and starring her creative partner and husband Erik Jensen, The Public Theatre’s “How To Be A Rock Critic” is a one man play with Jensen as Lester Bangs, the greatest rock critic of them all, in his apartment, hours before his death at the age of 33, talking to his audience about rock and roll and himself.
There is a rule of thumb here, if you die at 27 you are a rock and roll God, if you die at 33 you are a rock and roll Jesus. Bangs was a Jesus, preaching the Gospel of rock and roll to the multitude, writing his way into Rolling Stone before moving to Detroit and working at Creem, and in his truncated third act leaving for New York City and freelancing for the Village Voice as well as forming his own band. In 1988, Greil Marcus compiled his greatest hits called “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic” and my late friend John Morthland (and Bangs, he was the executor of Bangs will) published a volume two, “Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader” in 2003. In 2000 Jim Derogatis wrote Bang’s biography “Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic”.
Many of my peers and friends knew Bangs very well indeed, and I myself while not knowing him very well, certainly knew him, which leaves Jensen as Bangs in the difficult position of portraying a beloved saint of rock critics whom many people knew. Imagine if Jesus had died in 1982, don’t you think his disciples might have had a thing to say about a passion play? Like that. Jensen’s performance is superb, not just the center but also the only person you see, the 90 minute tour de force doesn’t have you suspending disbelief but rather considering Bangs words so thoroughly it is actually rock journalism by other means -to see Jensen’s enthusiasm over Bangs enthusiasm for The Carpenters is a joyful meta-commentary . Working through the arc of Bangs life with excursions into long excerpts, the beauty and truth and depth of feeling of Bangs words comes alive.
Starting with Bangs birth in Escondido, in San Diego County, California, he reflects on his Jehovah Witness mother who would only allow him to listen to spirituals and his father who died in a fire when Lester was eleven, Erik seamlessly places Bangs writing in the midst of exposition. Early on, Erik personifies Bangs writing about Van Morrison from Bangs masterpiece “Astral Weeks” review which acts as the plays lodestar while Bangs searches for the album to play for us. This is Erik and Bangs at their best, a gorgeous meeting of joy in music and writing and Erik coming to terms with his performance. Erik is easy in the heart of the matter and a shining personification of Bangs cultural (and rock and roll) belief and the desire to share it everywhere else.
Erik doesn’t get Bangs the way Philip Seymour Hoffman did in “Almost Famous,” with much more pressure upon him than Hoffman had, he gives us the Bangs the writer, not the person, come to life. That Bangs of the imagination is what Jensen inhabits in a play that is so clever as it moves in two directions at once, one part biography, two parts reenactments of Bangs writing. Which is not to say that I don’t have some quibbles with the play. For one thing, it is possible that Bangs spent 36 hours on a review, anything is possible, but, Bangs was a prolific and fast writer -it is an early and wrongheaded contrivance. For another, Bangs might well have written about Lennon fans singing “Hey Jude” outside the Dakota the day after Lennon was murdered, but if Lennon had hated it it would have been because it was a McCartney song. Nitpicking, but they threw me head first out of the performance.
What Erik and Jessica do get is Bangs, the man who wrote about the homeless (I paraphrase but it stayed with me for decades) how he didn’t know whether it was better to help them or leave them with whatever shred of dignity they had in their anonymity. Erik is spellbinding as he tells of the Hell’s Angels gang raping a girl and then how a Clash roadie and the Clash viciously pummeled a fourteen year old fan. The Clash interview is one of my favorite Bangs pieces, though I believe Erik and Jessica misinterpret the “I think we’ve just been giving a dressing down” comment. I think Joe (I thought it was Joe who said it) was being sincere. One more thing, I would have loved an excerpt from Bangs jazz writing, his “Black Magus” review is huge.
The other two greatest Bangs pieces are even better on stage. I am a huge fan of Elvis Presley and I have never read anything better, closer, smarter, or realer than Bangs describing an autopsy on Presley and imagining eating the drugs in Presley’s stomach and Erik is insanely great performing that piece, standing on two stacks of albums and acting out scoffing Presley’s insides. It is so great you dream of Bangs being still alive, not so that he could write about Presley but so he could have finished and published fiction. Bangs biggest mistake was starting a band as a form of doing what he wrote about, his artistry wasn’t music, it was literature and he should have done it… the “Maggie May” fiction excerpted in “Carburetor Dung” proves he’d have been great. Just as good is the final moments of the play when Bangs finds his copy of Astral Weeks and plays”Cypress Avenue,” as it skips on “the love that loves” and Bangs dies.
Yeah, I loved Lester Bangs. Along with Robert Christgau of the Village Voice and Bill Holdship of Creem, he was my favorite rock critic. This tremendous play (which ends on Sunday so get to it) reaches right into the heart of Bangs, and of rock critics, and of you and me.