Review: “How to be a Rock Critic”

Erik Jensen (Lester Bangs) in the Steppenwolf LookOut Series production of How To Be A Rock Critic. – Craig Schwartz


Where: Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted St.
When: through July 22
Tickets: $30
Phone: 312-335-1650

Theater Critic

If you go to “How to be a Rock Critic” expecting it to live up to its name with some sort of instructional guidance, you’re likely to feel let down. Subtitled “Based on the Writings of Lester Bangs,” the one-man show written by husband-and-wife team Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank is a trip into the screwed-up psyche of the guy some have called the greatest rock critic ever, but the closest he comes to giving advice on his profession is to say “being a critic means wanting to inflict your taste on other people.”

And that’s basically what he does for roughly 90 intermission-less minutes. As embodied to the bone by Jensen (and directed by Blank), Bangs not only passionately and sometimes insultingly treats us to his highly opinionated views of the good, the bad, and the ugly rock ‘n’ roll from the late 1960s through the ’70s, when he was writing for “Rolling Stone,” (which fired him), “Creem,” and “The Village Voice,” he also philosophizes about the significance of the music, his obsession with it, how the industry changed during this period, and the transformative power of the very best recordings.

His discourse does not unspool in a straightforward manner, however. The disheveled Bangs, wearing a black t-shirt that proclaims “Detroit Sucks,” ambles into his shabby “home,” which is strewn with beer cans, album covers, and other detritus (scenic design by Richard Hoover), and tells us to talk among ourselves and not touch his records as he sits down at a typewriter on a table in a corner and tries to bang out a review he says he’s been working on for 32 hours. Then he hands out magazines to keep us occupied. After that, he rifles through his albums, puts on the Carpenters and comments on the purity, and rifles some more, rejecting several including Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album. He’s looking for Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” and that search threads thinly through the evening until he finds it at the end.

Jensen and Blank apparently read everything Bangs wrote, published and unpublished, and bits of his biography pepper a monologue that comes across a little like a long interview. He grew up in Escondido the child of a Jehovah’s Witness mother who burned his William S. Burroughs-inspired writings and an alcoholic truck-driver father who burned up himself. He spent ages sending articles to “Rolling Stone” before they even answered, and the magazine ultimately fired him because the record companies and others who advertised objected to his negative reviews of their artists. This shift in rock from the “counter counter” culture to corporate enterprise is one of the things that depresses him most. Another is the distance between the gods rock stars are made out to be and the deeply flawed human beings they really are, which is illustrated with a couple of anecdotes about unbearable casual cruelty that Bangs didn’t try to stop.

Bangs died of an overdose at age 33 in 1982, and Jensen, who switches from manic to reflective in a heart beat, is constantly popping pills, guzzling beer and booze, and downing bottles of cough syrup, Bangs’ big drug of choice. While he talks about the myths associated with rock artists, many of whom he interviewed, Jensen and Blank’s tribute to him perpetuates two myths.

The first is that there is a connection between creativity and self-destructive behavior. The implication is that Bangs immersion in the lifestyle he was covering somehow made him a better journalist, or at least one who was more in touch with his subjects, though there is no proof that he wouldn’t have been just as smart and eloquent had he been sober. He undoubtedly would have lived longer.

The second myth is that what critics really want is to be doing the thing they write about. In this case, though, that may be what Bangs wanted—if we believe that everything in the script comes from him. Among other things, he formed a band, Birdland, and recorded with Joey Ramone’s brother, Mikey Leigh, though the group only lasted a couple of months. On another occasion, he joined the J. Geils Band on stage, typewriter in hand, and while they were playing, supposedly typed a review of the event in full view of the audience. As Jensen’s Bangs jumps up and down to the music, we can see his sheer joy at the experience.

Certainly, Jensen’s virtuoso performance is worth seeing, even if you’re not familiar with Bangs or the music he loved and hated. On the other hand, “How to be a Rock Critic” would definitely benefit from some trimming and shaping. There’s a lot of filler between the interesting stories and insights.

By the way, different local bands will play some of Bangs’ favorites after each evening performance.