A crowd of bourgeois baby boomers filled a rehearsal space upstairs at the Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City on Sunday night for a one-time performance of “How to Be a Rock Critic (based on the writing of Lester Bangs).”
The performance took place two days after what would have been Bangs’ 65th birthday had the seminal rock writer not died of an overdose of Darvon, Valium and NyQuil at the age of 33.
To capture his spirit, the theater group condensed some of Bangs’ drug- and alcohol-fueled musical and cultural analyses into a live performance. “How to Be a Rock Critic” is a one-man dramatic monologue propelled by Erik Jensen, who starred in the show and, along with his wife Jessica Blank, pieced it together from thousands of pages of Bangs’ published and unpublished work.
The stage was set with two desks — one holding a typewriter and the other a record player — with a music-stand-as-podium in the middle. Jensen stumbled onstage carrying a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a paper bag full of records to begin his performance, most of which was read from a three-ring binder and interspersed with music clips, real (I think) gulps of PBR and imaginary sips of cough syrup.
The monologue drew from a wide range of Bangs’ pieces, from his iconic album reviews to his more autobiographical and philosophical pieces. Using an encounter with the Clash as an anchor, the 80-minute performance attempted to illustrate the ups and downs of Bangs’ life as a rock critic and music fan, as well as his questions and beliefs about the general state of the being.
Throughout his encounter with the Clash, Bangs becomes enamored with the revolutionary music and the band’s connection with its audience, and then grows increasingly disenchanted as the experience wears on. This narrative arc is paralleled in many of the other featured stories. His introduction to rock ‘n roll music while growing up a Jehovah’s Witness (he found The Troggs’ “Give It To Me” particularly moving) was followed by a career of disillusionment as he saw first-hand the egotism, corporate control and hero worship that pollute the music industry. His life-affirming work as a full-time writer for “Creem” magazine ended sourly as the issues that polluted rock ‘n roll inevitably polluted rock ‘n roll journalism.
What he really captured was the true ebb and flow of things: the fact that a lifetime will include innumerable occasions of losing then regaining hope, then losing and regaining it again.
The lasting quality of Bangs’ first-person music writing proves that real entertainment journalism transcends re-writings of press releases from record labels and instead serves to connect with readers — music fans — about the way rock ‘n roll speaks about our lives, about society, about the music industry and tells the world how we feel about greater theoretical concepts such as love and life and death and hope.
It was exciting to see this existing onstage for a brief period of time, and I wish it could have been given a larger platform or a longer run.
One of the writings selected to play into Jensen’s performance is a review of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” which is often considered the greatest album review of all time by the kinds of people who tabulate things like that. In the review, Bangs characterizes a 1970 televised live performance of “Cyprus Avenue” at the Fillmore East, saying, “It is truly one of the most perverse things I have ever seen a performer do in my life. And, of course, it’s sensational: our guts are knotted up, we’re crazed and clawing for more, but we damn well know we’ve seen and felt something.”
Onstage, Jensen thrashes and shouts along with the audio track, using the space, his body and the music to convey the feeling behind Bangs’ words. On another occasion, Jensen passionately thrusts his pelvis into his typewriter. Although stumbling over his words on a few occasions, Jensen nonetheless effectively made more than an hour’s worth of reading aloud of complicated essays and articles seamless and watchable.
The worst part of the experience was the decrepit audience, who verbally(!!) announced song titles they recognized, tapped their feet and snapped their fingers in efforts to loudly ensure that everyone else knew that they were still cool and still knew how to rock ‘n roll.
But the “How to Be a Rock Critic” experience was altogether a good one. I left feeling a little recharged — confident that there will always be some great music to listen to and some great conversations to have about it. Bangs’ writings remain spectacularly amusing and relevant, even now (especially now, perhaps) that a culture of illegal downloading threatens the foundations of the album release and the steady decline of print journalism changes the way the public consumes media.
Regardless, one thing is certain: rock ‘n roll, of its infinite permutations and expansions, will find a way. And where there is music, there will, of course, be fans… and critics.