How Do You Possibly Turn Lester Bangs' Rock Criticism Into a Play?

Erick Jensen as Lester Bangs in How to Be a Rock CriticEXPAND
Erick Jensen as Lester Bangs in How to Be a Rock Critic
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Rock & roll has rarely fared well on the theatrical stage. What makes rock music so exciting — the wild, unrestrained passion and the seemingly limitless possibilities of instinct and volume — usually comes off as contrived and inauthentic in a play. And the idea of presenting a play about a music critic, as Center Theatre Group and South Coast Repertory are doing in their new co-production, would initially appear to be yet another step removed from the real thing. What kind of compelling action could even occur in a play about a rock writer, beyond a lot of frantic, late-night typing?

But the late Lester Bangs was no ordinary rock journalist, and Erik Jensen’s one-man tornado of a performance, How to Be a Rock Critic, which received its world premiere at Kirk Douglas Theatre on Wednesday night, is no ordinary play.

Escondido native Bangs was a famously unsentimental curmudgeon, whether he was trading wits with Lou Reed (“my hero — fuck that guy”) or championing the nobly carnal revolutions of The Troggs and The Stooges, and he likely would have been the first person to decry any attempt to adapt his life to the stage. And yet the manic, hard-partying lifestyle of the profanely poetic Bangs was already a form of theater, and often more interesting than his rock-star subjects’. In an amusing scene, Jensen relives how Bangs once appeared onstage as a guest with The J. Geils Band and ripped out a fiery solo — on his amplified Smith-Corona typewriter, which he then smashed.

Defying expectations, Jensen and his wife, director/co-writer Jessica Blank, manage to structure Bangs’ published and unpublished words into a fascinating, insightful story that’s often as cathartic and inspiring as the best rock & roll. If anything, Jensen’s fervent, nonstop energy exudes more far more honest rock spirit than recent tours by such corporate-minded mercenaries as U2 and The Rolling Stones.

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Bangs is briefly seen typing as the audience files into the Douglas Theatre’s intimate upstairs space to the sounds of Black Sabbath, but within moments he’s handing out fetish mags and cans of Schlitz beer to people in the front rows and restlessly prowling among the haphazard stacks of LPs in his disheveled living room. The set is a jumble of tacky period furniture, ugly brown and orange rugs and scattered cough-syrup bottles that scenic designer Richard Hoover has accurately detailed with vintage albums by Ornette Coleman, The Ramones, Otis Redding and Captain Beefheart.

What passes for plot mainly involves Bangs’ desperate search to find in all that clutter his favorite album, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, an almost spiritual interior road trip that encompasses his disillusionment with idols like The Clash and his own guilt as a critic “hovering on the outskirts of their lives.”

The use of well-chosen bits of songs by many of these musicians adds crucial resonance to Jensen’s performance, just as Bangs' feverish litany of words gives these songs newfound power and a deeper intensity, like a master class in rock rebellion.

GO! Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through Sunday, June 28; $30. 213-628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org.


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