Finnish composer Jean Sibelius once famously quipped, “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.” While that may be true, a beloved critical voice is about to get his artistic due onstage. How to Be a Rock Critic, a one-man show about legendary and highly influential rock writer Lester Bangs, opens June 17 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
At a time when the foundations of music criticism were begging to be shaken up, Bangs’ fearless fury tore down the ideas of celebrity worship and brought a personal, gonzo approach the world of rock journalism on the cusp of the punk movement. After a career writing for Creem, Rolling Stone, Village Voice and Playboy, Bangs died of an accidental overdose in New York City in 1982 at age 33.
The fervent energy of Bangs returns to this mortal coil in the form of How to Be a Rock Critic’s star and co-writer Erik Jensen, who wrote the play with his wife and the play’s director, Jessica Blank. Creating the show was a seven-year process from inception to stage, but Jensen’s love of Bangs’ work goes back even further.
“My parents were getting divorced,” Jensen says, “and I got sent to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to my cousin Greg’s house while they got the legal rigmarole out of the way. My cousin was a fan of The Clash, he had a weird thing called an ‘electric guitar,’ which I had never seen before, and under his bed were not the typical magazines you’d find under a teenager’s bed. He actually had copies of Rolling Stone and Creem going back eight or nine years. So it was there that I first encountered Lester.”
Jensen and Blank have created other docu-theater shows, such as The Exonerated, a play based on their interviews with 40 wrongfully convicted death row inmates. But How to Be a Rock Critic doesn’t fall under the same umbrella, because their deceased subject couldn't be interviewed. Instead, the play is culled from the couple’s extensive research, both from speaking with Bangs’ estate as well as getting access to all 15,000 pages of Bangs’ archives. This included Bangs’ 15-page resignation letter to the publisher of Creem, which began, “Dear Barry, do you think about me when you’re fucking your wife? Because that’s how much I think about this magazine.”
“One of the problems was Lester was very self-involved.” Jensen explains. “He was a chronic solipsist. We know [from] Lester’s friends that he was a fury of opposites. How do we get people to want to spend time with this guy? And we honed in on this being symbolically the last night of Lester’s life and he’s doing his ‘Gospel According to Lester.’”
“What we had to do,” Blank adds, “was find out where the manifesto-ness of his work was coming from. What was motivating that sort of devotion and passion? He wasn’t a close-minded guy — he was completely passionate in what he believed but was totally willing to be proven wrong. He was a utopian. He was a total punk-rock, jaded cynic [and] at the same time he was almost impossibly hopeful, looking for pure authenticity in music. His bottom line was, is it truthful?”
It’s an interesting coincidence that How to Be a Rock Critic is opening a week after the death of jazz great Ornette Coleman, whom Bangs considered a huge early influence and staunchly defended at a time when most rock critics were dubious of jazz. Although today's pop culture media have no shortage of voices allegedly “speaking their mind,” especially on the Internet, Blank and Jensen’s revisiting of Bangs shows how ahead of the curve he truly was.
“The weird thing about Lester’s work for me as a kid,” Jensen says, “which still resonates with me now, is the brutal kind of moralistic honesty. In an age where we’re all trying to come to some agreement on what we think is cool or good or bad on the Internet, there’s some kind of impulse [for] the tyranny of the majority to jump on alternative opinions. In that light, Lester was really groundbreaking. When I was a kid, honesty was something in short supply in my life. I think we need Lester now more than ever.”
But while they both have become intimately familiar with Bangs’ writings, that doesn’t mean they agree with all of his opinions. “At a base level, I think Lester was wrong about the first Black Sabbath album,” Jensen says. He also believes that “the first two Grateful Dead albums have a lot more to do with garage rock and surf rock than Lester [thought].”
“You guys can argue about the Grateful Dead in heaven,” Blank tells him.
How to Be a Rock Critic runs June 17-28 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Tickets and more info.