BWW Review: Legendary Music Journalist Lester Bangs Revisited in HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC
Be careful about expressing your admiration for certain artists during Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's hard-edged solo play, HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC. Though the audience is encouraged to engage in some give and take with Jensen as he impersonates the legendary writer Lester Bangs, fans of Jethro Tull, Herb Alpert, Styx and others may find their tastes abruptly dismissed as the gonzo journalist flings the LPs of musicians he can't abide by across the room.
"Who likes Fleetwood Mac? You can leave!"
Bangs had just reached 33 1/3 years of age when he died of an overdose of cough medicine, Valium and NyQuil in 1982, after 13 years of distinguishing himself with an aggressively critical style that got him fired from Rolling Stone. As editor of Creem, he was among those who coined the term "punk rock," as he attacked what he considered to be the accessible, corporate side of rock and roll.
"My idea for Rolling Stone was: Blast the Beatles and all other overrated gimmick mongers kowtowed to by the rock press. Causes to advance: Velvet Underground, Van Morrison, the Mothers, The Yardbirds and all great unknown black jazzmen hustling and starving everywhere."
Less biography than character study, HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC plays as free-form collage taken from Bangs' own writings. It can get a little redundant at times, but Jensen's energetic performance, honed by Blank's direction, insures that it's always entertaining.
Designer Richard Hoover provides a gloriously disheveled East Village apartment, strewn with LP albums, provided free for reviewers. Those up close will notice pills, beer cans, overflowing ashtrays and codeine-laced cough syrup, which the subject chugs for most of the 85-minute performance.
The obligatory backstory explains a typical rebellion against his religious suburban upbringing, fueled by his passions for Bukowski, Kerouac and Burroughs, escaping first to Detroit and then to New York.
An impromptu invitation to a Hell's Angels gang bang in progress inspires him to cover the proceedings as a journalist, until he realizes that the young woman involved is being raped and beaten.
Horrified at what he's witnessing, Bangs also feels helpless to do anything to stop the assault.
"What was I supposed to do? Take on an entire room of drunk sadistic bikers?"
While the vulnerable moment is effectively discomforting, the bulk of the show deals with his vision of the rock critic as rock star; the champion of the underappreciated and the nemesis of the overrated.
He admits there's little money to be made in the business and even less appreciation from the public ("In fact, most people will hate you, think you're an asshole, and tell you so to your face."), but there is the opportunity to be a cultural influence.
So HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC really takes off when we witness the subject practicing his craft, whether it's praising the musical purity of The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," getting off on the democratic sexual connection expressed in The Troggs' "Give It To Me" or examining the force of nature that was Elvis.
With more emphasis on Bangs' writing, and what makes him still regarded as an icon in the field, HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC could become as deep as it is fun.