The one-man stage production “How to Be a Rock Critic” opens a window into the grubby life of a great writer, and shines a bright enough light on the power of rock ‘n’ roll to impress both a Bangs-o-phile and his teenage daughter
How to Be a Rock Critic, a one-man show about one-man rock criticism Zeitgeist Lester Bangs, finished a brief New York City run last week as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival. Built around a search for a Van Morrison album, the show stars Erik Jensen as a paunchy booze-n-cough-syrup-swillin’-n-pill-poppin’ MUSIC IS POWER evangelist in a DETROIT SUCKS T-shirt under the direction of Jessica Blank. Blank and Jensen based the one-act whirlwind on the writings of Bangs, so if you’re at all familiar with his work – especially through essential posthumous compendium Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung – it will surely feel very familiar.
So if the words are there, why would anyone need Jensen’s Bangs or How to Be a Rock Critic? Doesn’t the writing crackle plenty right there on the page? And isn’t recreating the grubby, overstuffed apartment at 542 6th Ave. a voyeuristic experience akin to those tour buses that used to roll slowly down San Francisco’s Haight St. so pale Midwesterners could gawk at the hippies and freaks? Can’t we let Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s perfectly adequate version of Bangs in the imperfectly inadequate Almost Famous be the last word, if not by quality then by a lack of necessity?
Here is a nice snippet of Hoffman as Bangs from Almost Famous:
Well, maybe not. None other than Greil Marcus, who was apparently there during its penultimate performance on Sunday, January 14th and – if Instagram is to be believed (is it ever?) – he supposedly felt How to Be a Rock Critic is worth checking out. And who am I to argue with that?
Truth be told, it’s also worth it for Jensen, who bounces around the debris-strewn set like a pinball made of amphetamine, riding waves of regret, confusion, disappointment, sarcasm, self-loathing and occasional euphoria like the mythic surfers of the Beach Boys’ early oeuvre. Mythology looms large in the story of Lester Bangs, who explored the allure of myth in rock & roll in his own writing, then went on to become something of a myth himself.
As he did for seemingly every red-blooded American rock critic, Bangs stumbled brilliantly into my life at either the right or wrong time (the latter if you consider my bank balance), when Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung was published in the second half of the ‘80s. I was in high school, a fey slip of a lad, and here was the first poetry beyond the lyrics of Morrissey or the Davids Bowie and Byrne that hit the vein and accelerator.
I didn’t know Bangs – I wasn’t even a teenager when he died – and despite having read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung a hundred times; Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader (edited by the late John Morthland, a consultant on How to Be a Rock Critic) a dozen times; and Jim DeRogatis’ wild Bangs bio, Let it Blurt twice, no matter how hard I tried I didn’t ever really get to know him in death either. And I wasn’t alone in feeling that way either. Even Greil Marcus, who did know Lester Bangs, maybe didn’t know him well. He said as much in his introduction to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung…
“Like thousands of other people, I knew Lester mostly through his writing,” wrote Marcus. “We were, perhaps, deep friends, but never close.”
Later, Marcus claims a similar, if wholly necessary, distance in compiling the contents of Psychotic Reactions…a compendium which tells the tiniest fraction of the Lester Bangs’ story; to go the completist route, with countless unpublished works, an ocean of published reviews, meanderings, philosophy waxings, could fill an entire bookstore. Whatever Marcus and the others who worked on that electric tome did, it worked. It certainly worked on me; thirty years on, it’s still one of my favorite books.
But I’m an old fart now, something Bangs himself never got to be, and he was at least partly driven by a mission to convert the hearts and minds of teenagers, forever rock’s key demographic wellspring for all but the most craven elderly heritage acts. But I looked around that sold out Martinson Hall on that Sunday afternoon and saw just one teenager: My nearly sixteen-year-old daughter, Madeline, the coolest kid I know.
I wanted to see How to Be a Rock Critic for me, for whatever’s left of the teenager that fell under the spell of Lester Bangs a million years ago. But I needed to see How to Be a Rock Critic because I wanted to know what a cool kid thought of it. Not just the play, but Lester Bangs. Fortunately, Madeline’s first taste of both happened in the same weekend.
Madeline is a musician, a music nerd and record collector, artist and bookworm. She’s so damn cool. She’s a great many other things too, but these are the salient points as far as this particular exercise is concerned. And despite my being her dad, Madeline had zero experience with Lester Bangs.
So I stuck her in her room with my dog-eared copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, asked her to read three specific pieces, and shut the door, more anxiety-ridden than I was when I sent her the manuscript to my own goddamn book. What if she doesn’t love Lester Bangs? Does it matter? Should it?
The three pieces are the review of Astral Weeks, the album which sends Jensen’s Bangs on an epic odyssey through a mountain range of mis-categorized records piled high enough for sherpas and oxygen tanks; a feature on the Clash published in 1977 over consecutive issues of the NME; and Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, Bangs’ most celebrated riff about he and Lou Reed acting like preening assholes. The first two are significant to the play, the latter to the Legend of Lester Bangs. Madeline read those, and then spellbound by the writing, she read the rest of the book. And I may never get it back.
“He talks about having faith in music in place of a god or religion, and I feel like that’s where I’m at,” Madeline said. “If I’m having a hard time I can listen to music and sort of teleport away. So I can relate to that. There’s a beauty in the way he describes things. Even if, or especially if, he’s using vulgar language. The fact that he has such a special bond with music and feels so strongly about it informs the flow of his writing and helps you get immersed in what he’s writing about.”
She especially enjoyed “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves”.
“That was hilarious,” Madeline said. “If I was talking to Lou Reed, I’d be afraid.”
Like her wizened old dad, Madeline dug How to Be a Rock Critic too, though thankfully she still maintains a clean bedroom and an alphabetically-filed, ever-growing record collection.
How to Be a Rock Critic is a good night out, and it’ll apparently carry on being a good night out with select performances overseas in the next couple of years, possibly followed by a return engagement to New York City, Bangs’ final, if not entirely spiritual, home. It has played in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, so who knows where it’ll go next? Wherever it winds up next, let it be a theater with a less gentle audience incline; in a performance where the sole character spends a significant amount of time on the floor – sitting, lying down, a bit of writhing – all but those in the first few rows may find themselves struggling to see if he’s found that goddamn record he’s been searching for or just another bottle of booze or pills.
The other issue, and you may think this is minor if you’re not struck by the same affliction, is in the dressing. It’s so easy to get this shit right, I tell my wife pretty much every time we watch a movie set in the past, why don’t they bother? And we’ll laugh it off, and I’ll say, “I know, I know, I’m like the fraction of a single percent of the audience who knows that song wasn’t released until 1969, so what’s it doing in a scene set in 1965?” But in a play about the music, about its power, about the obsessive relationship Bangs and therefore many of us have with music, I finally hit my sweet spot for kvetching. Thus…
In 1993, the three Jimi Hendrix Experience albums were reissued on CD with totally different artwork. Designed by London firm Wherefore Art?, the covers were, if not ugly at least a contemporary misstep. The Wherefore Art? sleeve for Electric Ladyland, produced in 1993, was there on stage in 12”x12” record form, in the apartment of a guy who died in 1982. It bugged me, and it also bugged the woman sitting to my right, a Hendrix aficionado who didn’t recognize it at all.
As reproduced in the pages of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Bangs was sent to England on CBS Records’ dime in 1977 to cover the sound and fury of the Clash, which he wrote about for the New Musical Express, a British music weekly. The trip is a pivotal moment in How to Be a Rock Critic, touching on themes of heroes (and why you shouldn’t have any), the RAW POWER of ROCK & ROLL, and the lingering shame of not speaking up in the face of the humiliation and degradation of others. These may well be the Holy Hat Trick in the life of Lester Bangs, and to their credit, Jensen and Blank deliver the goods in the script, direction and performance. It is a staggering sequence, spoiled to nerds like me by the use of a live recording that was either earlier or later than the moment it’s meant to represent.In his Clash piece, Bangs mentions the group’s drummer, “Nicky Headon,” known to you and me as Topper. Topper was the ethereal spark that lit the fire, turning an earnest if otherwise plodding little punk outfit into THE ONLY BAND THAT MATTERS. No Topper, no “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” one of the great punk-busting singles of all time. No Topper, no genre-fucking London Calling. Hell, no Topper, no “Rock the Casbah,” because he was bored in the studio and tickled that piano riff right out of the ivories. No Topper, it’s unlikely Bangs gets his moment of revelatory bliss on that scuzzy junket to England. But in the recording played at How to Be a Rock Critic, the voice of Joe Strummer introduces the drummer as Terry Chimes. Now, Chimes was a key figure at least historically, if not musically, in the story of the Clash: He predated Headon, playing on the first album before realizing he and his bandmates wanted different things (a fancy car, perhaps, rather than slogans). He was passive-aggressively billed as “Tory Crimes” on the debut, and then came Topper. Of course, Topper left a few years later too, not over money but junk, and the group brought Chimes back. That’s Chimes you hear on Live at Shea Stadium, recorded on October 13, 1982, a gig which happened nearly six months after Bangs died. Bangs probably never saw Chimes with the Clash, not in England or America. Chimes is a good drummer, but he’s no Topper Headon.
It’s cool – IMPORTANT – to suspend your disbelief when you’re seeing a play, even one which frequently sees the fourth wall as one more trope to fuck with. Jensen does a hell of a job making it seem as though he’s actually playing those records on stage. But there’s one that doesn’t fit, and only a dork like me – and those who obsessively catalog this stuff on Discogs – would notice that unless it’s a bootleg, there was no official white vinyl pressing of White Light/White Heat until two decades after Bangs’ death.
Maybe none of these things were egregious enough to fully take me out of the moment in the theater, but I did chew on them for a while after. And when that happens, I start wondering what I might have missed. It’s pedantic, sure, but I wanted to love How to Be a Rock Critic for its attention to detail. And then I decided, fuck it, I’m going to love How to Be a Rock Critic like I love the writing of Lester Bangs himself, for its jittery poetry, its rushes of RAW POWER, its imperfections. I did love How to Be a Rock Critic, and so did my teenage daughter Madeline.
Hopefully it stays on the road and hits your town and you’ll love it too.
Here is a different view of Lester Bangs by one of his old
friends, Jim “The Hound” Marshall: The Hound Blog HERE
Here is Lester Bangs opining while he was editor of Creem magazine: