Becoming Lester Bangs: Erik Jensen on His Breathtaking, Big Screen-Bound Take on the Iconic Rock Critic
A few days before taking the stage at the Public Theater in New York City last week to perform the excellent one-man show How to Be a Rock Critic, actor and playwright Erik Jensen accidentally raised his voice to his eight-year-old daughter. He apologized and said he was just cranky that morning.
“No you weren’t,” she told him. “You were Lester.”
The astute grade-schooler is well on her way to understanding Lester Bangs, the legendary music journalist her father has portrayed on stage since How to Be a Rock Critic debuted in Los Angeles in 2015. Following runs in Chicago and Boston, the show comes to the Public as part of the Under the Radar festival, happening through Jan. 15.
“When we first started doing the play, I’d be up until 2 in the morning, unable to go to sleep because all I wanted to do was listen to music and eat and drink,” says Jensen, describing some of the behaviors associated with Bangs, who died of a drug overdose in 1982. “Those impulses had to be quelled in order to play the part. You can’t live like that while doing something like this. It’s too physical.”
Jensen created How to Be a Rock Critic with his wife and longtime collaborator Jessica Blank, who serves as director. While he was “very moved” by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Bangs in the 2000 film Almost Famous, Jensen says the roots of the play run much deeper. Back when he was an 11- or 12-year-old growing up in Minnesota, his parents sent him to stay with a cousin in Green Bay, Wisc. while working out the details of their divorce. It could’ve been a sad time, but this cousin was pretty cool.
“He had Rolling Stone and Creem magazines and a Telecaster guitar,” Jensen says, referencing two of the many publications Bangs wrote for in a career that began in the late ‘60s. “I thought I was in heaven.”
As a critic, Bangs wrote with unflinching honesty, intelligence, and a crackling energy worthy of his subject matter: rock n’ roll, the thing he loved most. Fueled by cough syrup and other substances, Bangs would stay up all hours writing free-flowing articles on topics only he could’ve imagined. He’d make cogent arguments about how Black Sabbath was “the first truly Catholic rock group” and facetious ones about why Lou Reed’s patently unlistenable Metal Machine Music was the greatest album of all time. The 1971 piece “James Taylor Marked for Death” is mostly a celebration of The Troggs—they of “Wild Thing” fame—though it’s predictably rough on the guy who sang “Fire and Rain.”
“His writing is rhythmic and musical,” says Jensen, who jumped from Bangs to Beat writers like William S. Burroughs. “A lot of people have the experience of internalizing the things Bangs writes. His ethos certainly stayed with me. I didn’t know what punk rock was until I read his wild writing.”
Jensen shared that writing with his wife in the whirlwind period following the couple’s award-winning 2002 play The Exonerated, a work of documentary theater based on interviews with people who’d been sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit. The play spawned a cable TV movie starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover, and it gave the couple freedom to pursue opportunities like the Bangs idea Jensen was kicking around.
“I had a sense of who he was culturally, but I didn’t know his writing,” says Blank, who wound up loving the Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. “I went back to Erik and said, ‘I don’t know how this is a play, but I totally agree with you. This person’s voice belongs onstage. He’s a genius. Let’s figure it out.’”
Their approach to How to Be a Rock Critic was similar to the one they used in The Exonerated, insofar as they let Bangs tell the story in his own words. The 85-minute show is based almost entirely on the late critic’s writings, including unpublished works they gained access to by contacting the Bangs estate. The stuff in the vaults was typed on onion-skin paper too flimsy to be fed into a copier, so Jensen had to handle each page individually and later retype everything onto his computer. This created a wealth of killer Bangs material to draw on for the show.
“It was a crazy process, because there was so much, and it was all interesting,” says Blank. “We knew that to orient the audience, we had to tell the story of his life, but he didn’t write a memoir. He didn’t write the story of his life in story form. He wrote the story of his life through his relationship with music.”
One early idea was to frame the narrative around Lou Reed, an artist Bangs alternately idolized and chastised and famously sparred with in a 1975 Creem interview titled “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves.” At one point, Jensen imagined a version of the play involving a giant Lou Reed puppet, but he deemed it “totally inappropriate.”
“We finally figured out through spending so much time with the material that there’s no central relationship with another person because the love of his life was music,” Blank says. “Once we hit on music as the other character, we were like, ‘OK, what was he looking for through music?’”
According to Blank, Bangs was seeking connections with other people. Born outside of San Diego, he was raised Jehovah's Witness by a devout mother who refused to celebrate birthdays or even mourn the death of her husband—Lester’s father—when he burned to death after falling asleep smoking.
And yet no matter how much he longed for communion with other music-loving humanoids, Bangs was a brilliant loner and self-professed solipsist, someone unable to see beyond his own thoughts. It’s one reason he was able to write in the first person—a major no-no as far as traditional journalism is concerned—without seeming like an egotist.
“He was writing about musicians, but he was really writing about relationships with those musicians,” Blank says. “In a way, he had to be in the story. He never saw music as a separate object that one could be dispassionate about.”
His faith in rock n’ roll and demand for honesty from performers doomed him to a string of disappointments. He hated the idea of worshipping rock stars, and yet he clung to the belief that music could save his soul. One major letdown—and a key plot point in How to be a Rock Critic—came in 1977, when he flew to London to interview The Clash. After being initially wowed by how gracious the UK punk band was to its fans, Bangs was horrified to watch all four members sit back and do nothing as a roadie allegedly pummeled a teenager for no good reason.
“With the bands he really loved, he experienced something utopian,” Blank says. “He rightly recognized the holiness of that, but then there was this unresolved question that I think was part of what killed him: ‘What do you do with that? How do we relate to each other in a way that could potentially make the world feel like that, or keep it going?’”
If this all sounds overly philosophical, rest assured How to Be a Rock Critic is a romp. The action takes place on a set decorated to look like the apartment of a 33-year-old dude who “never learned to clean his room,” as Blank puts it. Rather than sit behind a typewriter while pontificating about Elvis, The Carpenters, and The Velvet Underground, Jensen distributes beers to lucky audience members and leaps onto a coffee table when the Ramones come on the stereo. He spends much of the show sifting through piles of junk in search of Van Morrison’s 1968 masterwork Astral Weeks, the subject of a breathtaking Bangs article published in 1978.
The whole thing would make a great movie, and in fact, Blank tells Billboard that she and Jensen have secured the film rights to Let It Blurt, the 2000 biography on Bangs written by famed music journalist Jim DeRogatis. “We don’t have a script yet, and it’s in the early stages, but that’s always been part of the plan,” Blank says.
When some version of How to Be a Rock Critic hits the big screen, it won’t present Bangs as a hopped-up lunatic who hung out with rock stars and fell victim to some of the same vices they did. The sensational bits of his life wouldn’t mean squat if his writing wasn’t transcendent.
“As much movement as there is in the play, there’s stillness,” Jensen says. “I realized it last night as the audience was listening: ‘Oh, they’re leaning in.’ There were these moments of great silence that were such an incredible gift. They were really paying attention to him.”