by Carole Di Tosti
How much do you appreciate the profound substance of Rock Music? Do you believe it can change the very ethos of your being? This question is at the heart of an intriguing solo production, How to be a Rock Critic starring Erik Jensen as influential American music journalist, musician, author and rock critic Leslie Conway “Lester” Bangs (1948-1982). The entertaining and informative production was an offering included in the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. It is based on the writings of Lester Bangs and created by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.
Jensen, under the able direction of Jessica Blank, portrays the manic, brilliant, self-deriding and opinionated Bangs who confesses his deepest, inner most impressions and philosophical directives about what may be loosely identified as the evolving music of his own life and experience. His musings, rants and criticism include everything from pop, blues, jazz, fusion along with the quintessential rock bands of his time. As Jensen wends his way through two decades of signature music, he chronicles Bangs’ journey of personal devolution and obsessions with music, the industry, rock celebrity criticism, pills and cough medicine.
Chronicling the highpoints of Bangs’ career writing for magazines Rolling Stone and Creem, and free lancing for The Village Voice, Playboy and others, we watch mesmerized as Bangs drives himself into a slow boil during the profound and humorous eighty-five minutes of his sometime angst about music trends. The quotes which are taken from Bangs’ writings are fashioned into a whirl-wind of part memoir. His commentary stings. And Bang’s hysterical ruminations and vibrant word pairings weave a fabulous tapestry of music history. Bang’s super-sensitive emotional lens is at times caustic and brutal, at times fawning. However, his criticism is always honest, revelatory and maverick.
The production begins in present time as Jensen’s Bangs attempts to finish a review and engages the audience with his life’s confession. He reviews the chronology of his early life and influences. Interspersed among salient events of his life with truck-driver father who burned to death in a chair lit up by a cigarette, and strict Jehovah Witness mother, Jensen’s Bangs plays bits and pieces of music he selects from hundreds of albums that are scattered around his apartment.
Minimalistic and organized he is not. His apartment is nearly a hoarder’s den and one can spend an hour peering about the memorabilia, copies of old Rolling Stone magazines, slung about beer cans, unhung shirts and other items that personalize the quirky Bangs. For the exceptional details of the set, a shout out goes to Scenic Designer Richard Hoover who created the environment that Bangs wrote, lived and died in. And kudos also goes to Lap Chi Chu for Lighting Design and David Robbins’ Sound Design. Their support makes the production shine.
As Jensen’s Bangs plays clips of favorite bands and ones he negatively reviewed, he peppers these segments with ironic quips and discusses how the music industry evolved and fell apart. Many of the selected quotes from Bangs’ writings are superlative and illuminating. Others are humorous. For example his comments on The Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” coupled with a twirling dance are priceless.
Early on in the presentation Jensen’s Bangs searches for Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks to illustrate a particularly resounding philosophical concept which soothes his soul. However, he is unable to locate it amongst the heaps of albums and detritus. As he looks, Jensen steers us frenetically through Bangs’ helter-skelter artistic acumen. We learn that he sought salvation from William S. Burroughs, Jack Keroac and the cool sounds of John Coltrane. Indeed, the loose style and scatter shot word stringings of Keroac and Burroughs impacted Bang’s own writing and brought him to his first job at Rolling Stone at twenty-one. Not shabby for a youngster whose negative review of MC5’s album Kick Out the Jams made it into print. The rest is history and revealed in this very fine production.
After Jensen’s Bangs finds Morrison’s Astral Weeks and fades out into the ethers on pills and cough medicine, we utterly appreciate the greatness that was rock music seen through his seminal perceptions and keen understanding. The production above all is a story-book journey back into rock history. It is always alive and in the moment thanks to Jensen’s acting and Blank’s direction.
This must-see production concluded its run on 15 January. But one would hope that another venue will pick it up in the future. It is that good.