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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
How to Be a Rock Critic

"Nobody likes a critic. So why do it?" —Lester Bangs
Erik Jensen
Erik Jensen (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
I raise my lighter way up for Erik Jensen's kick-ass performance as Lester Bangs, trumpeted by many as the best rock critic of all time. His reviews and essays in the '70s heyday of Rolling Stone, Creem, the Village Voice were fiercely opinionated (sometimes ecstatic, often vituperative), deeply personal, and enduringly influential. Following his example of popularizing the terms "heavy metal" and "punk rock," I hereby dub the new play co-written by director Jessica Blank and Jensen a rock-u-docu-solo-show.

That term won't have much staying power. I'm no match for Bangs. Who is? How many other critics' writings – or those of performers, songwriters, or fans (Bangs was all these as well) - are compelling and conversational enough to create believable speech and a fully rounded character? But even his indelibly pungent words, as selected and structured here, barely add up to satisfying drama.

The piece begins with some ramshackle meta-theatricality. As we file past the set to the seats, Jensen's Bangs types away at his desk, promising he'll be a proper host as soon as the piece is done. To keep us occupied, he hands out some magazines that are strewn about his "home," a mess designed by Tony Award winning designer Richard Hoover as if it hadn't been hoovered in ages. Black Sabbath is playing on the turntable, but Lester decides "we can do better" and replaces it with The Carpenters." He leads us in a sing-along of "We've Only Just Begun" until he's done with that as well. "You think that's pure? Wait til you hear this..."

And so the search, and the play proper, begins as Bangs plows through piles of LP's to find Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. Along the way he passes judgement on the albums he finds first, by Kenny Loggins, Lou Reed, Styx, and Joni Mitchell. Casual commentary expands into more sweeping proclamations: "The whole point of rock 'n' roll is to create fantasies. The whole point of it is myth. So who am I, Lester Bangs, world famous rock critic, to tell you what your myth is?.. I simply want you to like the same things that I like. I need you to like them. Then I will not be alone. I will convert you."

And from there, Bangs balances the pontificating with the personal, revealing how music has affected his life at every turn. He starts by playing The Troggs' "Wild Thing," which helped his first date loosen up at a suburban drive-in. He admits "when you hear that song for the rest of your life you will remember what you had for one moment and lost forever and what you spent a lifetime trying to get back or worse not trying at all." The sentiment is so beautifully expressed and true, especially for professional critics and inveterate audience members, that you can imagine Blank or Jensen, who together created the searing documentary plays The Exonerated and The Aftermath, reading that line and thinking they'd found their next play.

The problem is that Bangs' words rarely dig deeper into the realm of dramatic intimacy. It's indisputable that he had a way with words: "I became a momma's boy to the kind of mother that fosters psychotic children, waking to paranoid recollections of inferno and apocalypse." And Jensen almost convinces this is the way someone like Bangs might speak. Even better, he does more than speak. Under Blank's guidance, he rocks.

Bangs becomes a stage god here, making the play a combination character study/homage/wish fulfillment fantasy. And it's based on truth. He got out from behind his desk to appear on stage and vinyl. He typed in a spotlight while the J Geils Band performed. Lester even made some albums. They didn't achieve commercial or critical success, but Jensen and Blank are now getting him the kind of center stage, rapt attention he must have fantasized about receiving.

Even this has its limits. Blank and Jensen showcase an intelligence, spirit, and energy that command our respect and awe. But their subject wanted more from music and many may want more from a play. Bangs' own writings don't provide the kind of personal revelation and catharsis found in the best albums. When Bangs finally finds Astral Weeks, he clutches it like the life preserver it's been for people like himself. Criticism doesn't operate in the same way.

Bangs wrote in his review of the Van Morrison classic, "Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt." These are essential emotions, which elude most of How to Be a Rock Critic. Even so, Erik Jensen offers a must-see master class in how to play the best rock critic of them all, with a soundtrack you'll want to bang your head to.

How to Be a Rock Critic
Based on the Writings of Lester Bangs
By Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Performed by Erik Jensen
Directed by Jessica Blank

Scenic Design by Richard Hoover
Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu
Sound Design by David Robbins
Dramaturg: Polly Carl
Production Stage Manager: Mary K Klinger
Running time: 85 minutes without intermission
Plays through June 28 Upstairs at Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 W Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232, (213) 628-2772
Reviewed by Jon Magaril
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How to be a Rock Critic
How to be a Rock Critic - Erik Jensen offers a must-see master class in how to play the best rock critic of them all, with a soundtrack you'll want to bang your head to. . . Read More