"Why the hell should anybody give a crap about some rock critic who died over 30 years ago?"
It felt like the type of sarcastic question that the ghost of Lester Bangs might've opened with if he were sitting across from the actor charged with portraying him on stage. Had he been alive today, the idea that his life would be anything worth writing about in a play would probably feel strange to him. There's a brief pause on the other end of the phone during a conversation with Erik Jensen, the man who co-wrote and stars as Bangs in the one-man production How to Be a Rock Critic. You can almost feel his wooly mustache bristling before he smirks and fires back an equally sarcastic answer.
"I dunno, why the hell does anyone give a crap about Shakespeare?"
It feels odd that this rebuttal could hold some truth in the modern era of journalism or just writing in general. Really? A jaded, roguish, rock-n-roll slob banging away on a typewriter in an apartment cluttered with records above a New York Chinese restaurant in the '70s had something in common with the Englishmen who wrote Hamlet? To a lot of people, the answer is yes.
In his short life (Bangs died of an overdose in said New York apartment at age 33), Bangs not only generated tens of thousands of pages of material for Creem Magazine, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, he managed to make it mean something. Not only to him, but to an entire generation of fans, journalists and punk rockers looking for someone to believe in. Or, more importantly, a someone who they could simply just believe. The father of what many call "modern rock criticism" was considered a truth-teller, an enemy of the pop artifice, a gonzo journalist and and early punk enthusiast. He was a simultaneously misanthropic, utopian scribe who many of rock's biggest icons still consider to be an asshole. And on top of it, his life makes for one hell of a story.
That was the point of my conversation with Jensen and his wife and collaborator Jessica Blank who co-wrote How to Be a Rock Critic, which runs June 11-14 at South Coast Repertory before moving on to the Kirk Douglas Theater on June 17. Fans of Bangs' work will recognize the title--the same one he used to write an essay that masterfully mocks and praises his profession. Told through Bangs' own words, this solo play sheds light on a groundbreaking, pioneering voice in music, most notably in punk rock.
"He was one few people who had the balls to ask an artist, just like you had the balls to ask me, why the fuck did you do this? Why did you make this record?" Jensen says. "Don't bullshit me and give me a canned answer, give me the real stuff. That's why we need him more than ever. That's why I need him more than ever."
Reviving Bangs' voice and character through his published and unpublished work is a personal journey for Jensen, not just because he embarked on the project with his wife and fellow actress who directed the play. The two have worked together on multiple projects, including their acclaimed production of The Exonerated, telling the stories of exonerated death row inmates in 2002 (later turned into a made-for-tv movie starring the likes of Susan Sarandon, Brian Dennehy, and Danny Glover). A play about Bangs became a journey back into Jensen's own childhood.
Growing up in a small town in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, Jensen came from a lower middle class broken home and spent much of his time at an older cousin's house diving under his bed to fish out copies of Creem and Rolling Stone. Reading Bangs' appraisal of seminal acts like The Clash, the MC5, Iggy Pop and The Sex Pistols at an early age had a lasting effect. Aside from the academic history lesson of rock's saviors and charlatans of the '70s, the idea of an adult telling it like it was, consequences or hurt feelings be damned, blew him away.
"The house I grew up in was sorta short on honesty, so I found Lester's work to be really refreshing and it saved me in a way. And I feel like Lester paid it forward to me and now I get to pay it forward to other people."
But it involved a lot more than doing a bit of research and hashing out a script. Together, Blank and Jensen took it upon themselves to ingest somewhere in the ballpark of 50,000 pages of Bangs' work, from his most well-known pieces to his typed notes and hand-scribbled letters. At his height, Bangs could easily crank out 20 pages of writing a day. Working with his estate (run by Bangs' nephew and two of his close friends), Jensen xeroxed copies of his subject's archive and shipped them to their home in New York, where he and Blank spent over two years reading, memorizing, even re-typing pieces Bangs had written.
"Re-typing Lester's words, it got his rhythm into us," Blank says. "A lot of what we were interested in weren't so much the record reviews, but the journals, the letters, all of that material. So there's a lot of unpublished stuff in the play."
Though much of the production will cater to fans of Bangs' work, the goal, as with most good writing, is to tell a story that transcends the inherent pompousness of rock criticism. "This play could easily be called How to Be a Human," Jensen says. When it came to his work, Bangs' thirst for transcendence in rock-n-roll was bred out of a religious impulse that he had as an average kid (born Leslie Conway) growing up in a devout Jehovah's Witness family in Escondido, CA. Despite not really giving a crap about religion, Bangs was able to worship the feeling he got from music, as long as it felt honest. Anything that felt dishonest or contrived felt worthy of scorn. And as anyone who has read his work knows, his tastes also went far outside the realm of punk.
"A lot of people associate him with the punk scene in New York. But he was also a Carpenters fan," Blank says. "He was into all sorts of shit that people would never think he was into. He was always looking for utopia in rock-n-roll, he was looking for how to be a human being in music, because the highest thing he ever touched was in rock'n'roll."
Even if you're not familiar with Bangs' work (maybe you just saw him as the character Philip Seymour Hoffman played in Almost Famous), by now you're aware that this was a guy who took a lot of chances. Whether it was feuds with rock stars or his own substance abuse, there was little society could do to tame him. But as the music industry took an even more commercial turn in the '80s, a lot of what was wild and beautiful about rock-n-roll was changing fast. And in his eyes, not for the better. To this day, there are people who say the arrival of the '80s ultimately killed him.
"He was a voice in the wilderness holding out for truth at all costs and he died right as MTV was created and the year after the CD was invented," Blank says. "And he saw the mass production coming. He saw the packaging and repackaging and choreographing of pop culture that was coming and he was one of the holdouts." Bangs spent the last night of his life on April 30, 1982 listening to records, taking drugs, searching for truth in the music that surrounded him. His overdose on the prescription painkiller Darvon came at some point while listening to a Human League's 1981 album Dare!
Had it not been for his untimely death, it's interesting to think about whether or not someone like Bangs could actually survive as a writer in the world we live in now. Despite having more ways to share opinions about music than ever before, most journalists and music critics have much more pressure put on them to say or not say things because of corporate owners or overcautious, PC leadership in the newsroom. In that sense, Bangs will always occupy a time and place in journalism that's buried in the past. But hopefully a play like How to Be a Rock Critic can stir us up enough to make us realize that it that doesn't mean that it can't exist again.
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"Lester said that the whole point of American culture is to pick up any old piece of trash and make it shine with more facets than the Hope Diamond," Jensen says. "I kinda think Lester would thrive on that kind of world [today] because he'd always have something to push against all the time. I don't think our discourse has become more open, I think it's become closed off. Maybe it's time for another punk style revolution and maybe we'll get over that and I hope we do."
How to Be a Rock Critic will be performed at South Coast Repertory June 11-17 and the Kirk Douglas Theater June 17. For full info on the showtimes and tickets, click here.