'How to be a Rock Critic': Theater Review

Courtesy of Centre Theatre Group
Erik Jensen in 'How to Be a Rock Critic'
Jensen's unapologetic turn as the drug-addled critic is as incoherent as a Narconon meeting in a pharmacy.

Actor Erik Jensen's solo show on legendary Rolling Stone and Creem critic Lester Bangs gets a 12-performance run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

Some of the best classic rock ever recorded is emanating from the upstairs rehearsal space at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Vinyl LPs are spinning out tunes by Van Morrison, The Troggs and Iggy Pop. It’s also where actor Erik Jensen thrashes through a gutsy, graphic and fervently heartfelt one-man show How to be a Rock Critic, based on the writing of Lester Bangs, uber rock critic for Rolling Stone, Creem and The Village Voice from 1969 through his fatal overdose in 1982.

Considered one of the founding fathers of rock criticism, Bangs was an indelible tastemaker during the key transitional phase when rock went corporate. Fans of the writer will nostalgically find themselves transported to his dumpy apartment, as the legend waxes poetic while under the influence of cough syrup, pills and Schlitz. But those who’ve never heard of Bangs might feel trapped in a black box with an unwashed, drug-addled pituitary case, drunk on the sound of his own never-silent voice. 

The audience enters through scenic designer Richard Hoover’s convincing pigsty of a set — cheap sofa, chair and table adrift in a sea of beer cans, magazines and vintage album covers. Begging our patience, Bangs sits in the corner, banging out another review. It’s a while getting into things, as early seventies blues spins on the turntable, and audience members chat among themselves. With his review ready to post (by U.S. Mail!), Bangs finally addresses the audience, wearing a pair of too-small jeans, a black Thin Lizzy t-shirt, and straggly hair with a seventies porn-stache. He looks like a parent’s worst nightmare — the man-child who never moved out of the basement. 

If there’s any structure to this 80-minute monologue by the husband-and-wife team of writer-performer Jensen and writer-director Jessica Blank (The Exonerated), it’s in Bangs’ search for an album, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. But really, How to be a Rock Critic has no structure, no development and little emotional catharsis. 

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Recalling a landmark interview with Lou Reed ("Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves"), Bangs asks him how he bears the weight of so many fans desperate for rock heroes to live their lives for them. Reed responds, "You used to be able to write. Now you're just full of shit." And he is. Watching Bangs' beer and medication fueled rant about mythological rockers, the counter-counter-culture and the sexual democracy of the Troggs' "Give it to Me" is like watching a dervish on Darvon. He could crash at any minute. Not from the narcotics, but from his own faulty logic. 

Early in his career, he recalls attending a gang-bang at a Hells Angels party with the intention of journalistically recording every detail. Instead, he is confronted with a young woman being beaten and raped; he finds himself unable to intervene, yet unable to withdraw. It foreshadows a later beating incident Bangs witnesses while touring with The Clash, but it’s hard to tell if its meant as a personally formative moment or commentary on the insignificance of critics. 

The role of a critic is to "inflict your taste on other people," he says in a line that sounds suspiciously like it was written by Jensen and Blank, not by Bangs. While some critics may operate along those lines, the best make their assessments based on how well a creative work achieves the goals it sets for itself. Another misperception is that critics are artists frustrated by failure who use their pen to take revenge on the world. By his own account, Banks longs to produce something meaningful and gets his chance in 1981 with the album Birdland, with Joey Ramone’s brother, Mickey Leigh. It's the beginning and the end of his recording career. 

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That Bangs is a turn-off for anyone but a diehard fan is not the fault of Jensen, who summons considerable passion for his subject. While his performance is as unapologetic as it is admirable, his motivations remain hazy. Bangs hardly seems an accessible subject for a play. His iconoclastic approach to popular music, with his eyes leveled on the horizon for new icons to raise and then smash, offers audiences a gonzo-style philosophy vague on specifics. 

In the end, Bangs finds Astral Weeks and plays us "Cyprus Avenue," a love song about a guy watching a 14-year-old girl on her way home from school, knowing he can never have her. Bangs praises the singer for cutting through the nihilism, a confusing encomium made more so by the fact that Bangs appears to be the biggest nihilist of all. 

As Jensen bellows and stomps through beer cans, it's difficult to see the point of How to be a Rock Critic, other than to honor Bangs. And if he doesn't seem quite a large enough figure for his own play, maybe he doesn't need to be. If Aaron Copland can compose "Fanfare for the Common Man" and Bangs can praise famous death dwarves, then why not a shout-out to rock 'n' roll's greatest critic, even if it's as incoherent as the man it honors?

Cast: Erik Jensen
Director: Jessica Blank
Playwrights: Erik Jensen, Jessica Blank
Scenic designer: Richard Hoover 
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Sound designer: David Robbins
Presented by Center Theatre Group

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