By Mike Hoban
‘How To Be A Rock Critic’ – Based on the Writings of Lester Bangs; Written by Erik Jenson and Jessica Blank; Performed by Erik Jenson; Directed by Jessica Blank; Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu; Scenic Design by Richard Hoover; Sound Design by David Robbins; Dramaturg: P. Carl; Produced by Thomas O. Kreigsmann at Emerson/Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, 559 Washington Street, Boston, through May 21.
If you are a music fan of a certain age who experienced the evolution of Rock n Roll from the late sixties to the early eighties with any degree of enthusiasm, ‘How To Be A Rock Critic’ – a kind of one-night stand with the (deceased) seminal rock critic Lester Bangs – is not to be missed. Erik Jenson, who plays the speed and cough syrup-fueled pseudo-journalist and bona fide creative writer Bangs with a beautifully unhinged bravado, perfectly captures the near spiritual experience of what happens when people like Bangs (and me) hear those three chords that unleash the mind-bending power of a truly great rock song.
Based on 15,000 pages of Bangs’ writings, Jenson and his wife, Jessica Blank (who also directed) have written a piece that paints a three-dimensional portrait of the brilliant but disdainful reviewer. Bangs spawned a whole genre of music criticism that itself embodied the spirit of rock n roll, stripping away all of the artistic pretense, much like a Sex Pistols song. His reviews were jarringly forthright (honest would be too strong a word, because taste is so subjective) and excruciatingly funny, particularly if you shared his opinion of the artist he was brutally eviscerating. As he tells the audience, being a critic means you get to “inflict your taste on other people,” and Jenson channels Bangs with an impassioned glee when ripping everyone from the Beatles to Fleetwood Mac.
The one-man docu-play (now being mounted at Emerson’s Liebergott Black Box Theatre) opens in Bangs’ trashy living room, with empty Schlitz cans, prescription drug and cough syrup bottles littering the floor of his apartment, along with hundreds of albums. He’s working on a review but stops to welcome us in, offering beers and magazines to the audience while they wait before just tearing the page out of his typewriter and launching into his manic, but often poignant story of his life and the rock n roll that shaped it. The story is loosely framed by his searching for his copy of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album – in a characterization reminiscent of everybody’s coked up friend from the 80’s – that he must play for you.
Bangs was the product of the type of childhood that often leads to great creativity – and/or booze and drug addiction. His dad was an alcoholic who passed out drunk and burned himself to death with his lit cigarette, while his mother was an evangelizing Jehovah’s Witness who often cornered Bangs in his room, preaching fire and brimstone. He learned to escape into comic books and science fiction until one day – like Jenny, the five year old girl in Lou Reed’s pre-punk classic, “Rock n Roll” who “despite all the amputations, could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station” – his life was saved by rock n roll, rock n roll. His life-changing experience came when he first heard the Troggs’ “Give it to Me”, and like a crackhead chasing the next hit, spent the rest of his life trying to recapture the feeling of that first rockin’ blast.
Bangs turned his passion into an avocation, and then a career when he was hired by Rolling Stone, but was fired for slamming the artists of the record companies that financially supported the magazine. He then went to Creem, where he became editor, and helped publicize the cutting edge bands of the time such as Iggy and the Stooges, Roxy Music, Blondie, and the New York Dolls. He lasted five years in that position, and went on to write for a host of other publications including The Village Voice, Penthouse, and Playboy.
Jenson gives an inspired performance as Bangs, and his love for his subject is obvious. But this is no hero worship vehicle. He shows us the brilliance of Bangs’ unconventional prose and seemingly random but extreme opinions (the Beatles were overrated, but he loves Karen Carpenter), but does not spare us the torture and self-doubt the man endured (particularly as he relates a pair of bookended stories of violence involving the Hell’s Angels and later The Clash – after he had anointed them the saviors of rock n roll). He also wonders later in his career, as he sinks deeper into his addictions, that he has become as creatively bankrupt as the bloated rock bands that he loathes.
Bangs died in 1982, at age 33, from an overdose of Darvon, Valium and Nyquil, but How To Be A Rock Critic’ should keep him alive for people with fond memories of both him and that magical era he helped to illuminate. For more info, go to: https://artsemerson.org