All you need to appreciate the work of the late, influential rock critic Lester Bangs, his friend and editor Greil Marcus once wrote, “is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.”
Or better yet, to understand Bangs’ legacy, go see How to Be a Rock Critic at the Public Theater in Manhattan’s East Village, where it runs through Jan. 15 as part of the Under the Radar Festival.
The engaging one-man play, a labor of love from writer/actor Erik Jensen and writer/director Jessica Blank (a husband-and-wife team behind the award winning documentary plays The Exonerated and Aftermath), traces Bangs’ life from his hometown in El Cajon, Calif., through a career that included work for Rolling Stone (where Marcus was his editor), Creem (which he joined in Detroit at the invitation of Dave Marsh) and the Village Voice, where he was writing until his death in New York in 1982 at the age of 33.
“For him, music and writing were matters of life and death,” wrote Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, in his obituary of Bangs -- describing his friend as “scared, excited, sour, friendly, homely, cuddly, beat, weird, goofy, defenseless, guileless, seamless, motivated, skillful, old-fashioned, unreasonable, moralistic, angry, benign, phenomenally intelligent, and all lit up.”
Jensen captures all of that in his portrayal of Bangs, in ripped jeans, sneakers and a black “Detroit Sucks” t-shirt, holding forth in a cluttered apartment (scenic design by Richard Hoover, lighting design by Lap Chi Chu, sound design by David Robbins) where vinyl albums litter every surface. Yet one unnamed disc remains elusive for much of the evening. “I need that record,” Bangs declares, mysteriously.
There’s inevitably a sweet nostalgia to the idea in this play that rock ‘n’ roll (to say nothing of rock critics) could have such a central place in the cultural conversation. This is the year that the lineup for the Coachella festival includes not a single rock headliner, part of an era in which hip-hop and pop dominate the Billboard Hot 100 and the streams (not albums) that feed the hunger of music fans.
So How to Be a Rock Critic may come across, at times, like a history lesson. But you might have noticed that the Public Theater has had some previous success with a play about a great figure from American history. Bangs, to be sure, was no Alexander Hamilton -- but he was certainly “young, scrappy and hungry,” and not going to throw away his shot.
Blank and Jensen’s script is based on Bangs’ voluminous writings, not only his published work but letters and diaries, making their portrait more intimate than the well-known depiction of Bangs by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2000 film Almost Famous.
How to Be a Rock Critic takes us through Bangs’ intensely personal encounters with the music of the the Troggs, the Count Five, Iggy and the Stooges, Lou Reed, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, The Clash and many more. Jensen is at his comical best re-creating Bangs’ appearance onstage, clicking away on a miked Smith-Corona typewriter, during a performance with the J. Geils Band at Detroit’s Cobo Hall in the early 1970s.
Through Jensen’s performance, we understand what drove a critic who defined his life by “writing and listening, writing and listening.... I analyzed every note of every day.” Early on, Bangs declares, “I decided to have faith in the one thing that never let me down, rock’n’roll.” And he would pull no punches when artists failed to meet his expectations, even when record companies “started bitching to my editors... What was I supposed to do—lie?”
As Bangs finds that missing album -- a transcendent work of music -- in the play’s moving final scene, it’s clear that this critic never wrote a dishonest sentence in his life. What greater legacy can a writer have?