“How To Be A Rock Critic” is a solo play depicting a day in the life of critic Lester Bangs shortly before he died of an overdose in 1982 at the age of 33. If we are to take the title literally, the answer seems to be to have strongly unpopular opinions: James Taylor should be marked for death; the Beatles are overrated gimmick mongers, the Rolling Stones, the biggest pigs that ever lived; Dylan faked his whole career….
It was opinions like that – or more precisely, negative reviews of albums produced by advertisers — that got Bangs fired from Rolling Stone Magazine.
You would have had to read Lester Bangs’ writing, or at least to have seen his depiction by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2000 movie “Almost Famous” to understand why he was such a respected critic, one who coined the term punk rock. The uniqueness of his perceptions is not much in evidence in “How To Be A Critic,” starring Erik Jensen, who gives a persuasive performance, and who co-wrote the script with his wife and director Jessica Blank “based on the writings of Lester Bangs.” The two previously wrote “The Exonerated,” a moving, activist play based on interviews with innocent inmates who had been on Death Row. It’s as if with “How to Be a Rock Critic,” they’re taking a break from a theater of consequence.
We the audience at the Under the Radar festival at the Public, are Lester’s guest in his mess of an apartment, as he tries to finish a review on his manual Smith-Corona typewriter, pops pills and guzzles cough syrup, plays snippets of songs he likes on his old phonograph (The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” The Troggs “Wild Thing,” “1969” by Iggy and the Stooges) and tells us his life story. He had an unhappy childhood with a crazily religious widow for a mother, from which he escaped first through the Beat poets and then rock n roll.
Rock didn’t just change his life; it determined his career, thanks to “those first few listenings to a record so total, so mind-twisting, that you authentically can say you’ll never be the same again– it’s like your first orgasm. The whole purpose of my absurdly persistent involvement with music is the pursuit of that one precious moment. And my ultimate goal was to share that moment: to write reviews which not only told you what an album was about, but even sounded like it— and to leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that he has got to hear this music.”
He pestered Rolling Stone magazine for ages before they finally hired him, then he moved onto the looser Cream magazine in Detroit; moved to New York to freelance; interviewed a thousand rock stars. He tells of his interaction with a few of them (nothing surprising; the guitarist from the Clash set Bangs’ hair on fire.)
There are moments that suggest the power of Bangs’ insights. In discussing Elvis, Lester observes: “The whole point of American culture is to pick up any old piece of trash and make it shine with more facets than the Hope Diamond. And Elvis did that—the best of anyone.”
But we are meeting Lester Bangs when he is disillusioned and self-destructing, and about to die. He himself acknowledges this; he tells us of his last interview with Lou Reed, when he asks him to define decadence, and Reed replied: “You, Lester. Because you used to be able to write, and now you’re just full of shit.”
It’s a trajectory with which we’re familiar from the stories of many of the rock stars whom Lester covered; there’s not much new here.
Earlier, Lester had said to us: “Nobody likes a critic. So why do it?” The answer seems to be, he had no choice.
How to Be A Rock Critic is on stage at the Public Theater through January 15, 2018, as part of the Under the Radar Festival.