I'm not exactly sure what "How To Be A Rock Critic" is, or who it's for. Bangs apostles who attend will likely find themselves in one of two camps: among the Besotted, nodding along in recognition of the play's lines and the stories adapted from Bangs's work, and getting off on Jensen's tightly-wound portrayal of the sloppy hero made flesh; or the Skeptical, in love with Bangs's words and his charged calling, but doubtful of the need to dramatize them so theatrically. Those new to Bangs or only slightly familiar with him might feel as if they're trapped, lectured by a well-meaning blowhard. In a way, each response is valid, as each registers somewhere along Bangs's character and intentions and the reactions that his writing—and his oversized personality—often got.
If there's a narrative arc in the play, it's Bangs's search for Van Morrison's Astral Weeks album; he's literally looking for it throughout the play, promising the audience that they'll love it if he can just find the damn thing, and also figuratively searching for the momentary transcendence that that music provided, and might again. The play is also book-ended by Bangs's narrating of two events he witnessed: when a groupie was viciously attacked by a Hells Angel member during an orgy; and when a fourteen-year-old fan of the Clash was assaulted by a member of the band's retinue. In both cases, Bangs did not intervene. Jensen plays these two accounts as sources of great guilt and shame for Bangs, who seems to find a parallel sense of ennui and helplessness in the face of corporate rock and bloated professionalization of rock criticism of the early- and mid-1970s pre-Punk era. As Bangs often did, Jensen moves between ecstasy and despair—he foams at the mouth, leaps about, jumps on the coffee table and the stacks of records to make his points, and ends the performance dissolute, drunk, and high, nodding off on the couch as Van Morrison album plays. In a nice bit of directing, the album jump-cuts to the last song, stuck in a perpetual skip as the play ends.
People who knew Bangs well said that he could be a blowhard and a loudmouth bore, that he could be mean, especially when drunk or high, and that you often felt like a captive audience when he was holding forth. That sense of being stuck with an ecstatic as he proselytizes and careens between sincerity and bombast is well dramatized in the intimate space of the 1700 Theater, and Jensen milks his center-of-attention status well. Bangs could be annoying; so is Jensen playing Bangs. Bangs was also brilliant, talented, funny, and deeply-caring; Jensen moves among those poles, as well.
|Erik Jensen as Lester Bangs|
Blank and Jensen also get it right, most often when Bangs holds forth about the music he loves. His description of driving around with a blissy, spaced-out girlfriend as the Troggs's "Wild Thing" plays on the radio wonderfully captures the way that simple, unadorned rock and roll—Bangs's favorite kind—can open doors into very complex rooms. Near the end of the play, as Jensen's admirably-paced alcohol- and cough syrup-high is cresting, Bangs takes on Elvis, persuasively proving that the boy from Tupelo who seemed to come from outer space was both a local turd and a larger-than-life force of nature. Why can't he be both? Bangs wonders. (I bristled at Jensen's mimicry of Elvis's moves as Bangs imagined eating the drugs from Presley's intestines after Presley died; it's one of Bangs's greatest, most insanely inspired riffs and Jensen's play-acting trivializes it.) Before he nods off to Morrison's "Cypress Avenue," Bangs ruminates on the power of music that once gave him a glimpse into something remarkable, something that refreshed him and gave him hope. His confessing to spending the rest of his life trying to rediscover and renew that moment is the most potent and moving dramatization—and description—of Bangs's life and career that the play achieves.
As any fan of Bangs's writing knows, even in his pay-the-rent shitty album reviews and profiles, he was rarely writing just about music; he was writing about what it means to be a living, breathing human who didn't choose to be here and is now stuck looking for justification. Bangs writes about how being alive blows and is also the greatest gift—45s and album cuts were simply the moving parts that got his words to the page.
Still, I'm on the fence, somewhere between my gratitude for Blank and Jensen's commitment to a great writer and my my skepticism about whether music writing can be fully dramatized. After the performance, I wondered half-seriously if maybe the best thing Blank and Jensen could've done would've been to have Bangs sit on his couch, drink, get high, and play the entirety of the Carpeners' Close To You or all four sides of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music while half-grinning, leering, and crying. (Bangs on MMM: "As a statement it's great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.") Not saying a word. He's staying here. After all, we've got his books.
Photo of Jensen onstage via The Artery (Courtesy Craig Schwartz/ArtsEmerson)