‘Rock Critic’ hits an honest chord
If you had to guess what kind of play “How to Be a Rock Critic” might be from its title alone, precedent would strongly suggest some kind of comic-absurdist romp.
After all, it’s not unusual for scoffing to be on the agenda when critics turn up as characters in plays or songs, or in the comments of people who write plays and songs.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is musician-comic Martin Mull’s oft-quoted bid to defang reviewers. In “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett deploys a shouted accusation — “Critic!” — as the insult-to-beat-all-insults. Audiences have laughed on cue for the past 60 years.
But Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen had something else in mind while spending two years sifting carefully through the 50,000-page output of a single critic in hopes of distilling his writing into a dramatic monologue that would tell his life’s story and convey the core of what he’d thought and felt about music.
Their play’s full title is “How to Be a Rock Critic (based on the writing of Lester Bangs),” with Jensen playing Bangs and Blank directing. Still in development, with a public staged reading set for Dec. 15 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the play is a full-on homage to a writer whose flamboyant, calculatedly outrageous first-person articles mainly inhabited music magazines from 1969 to his death in 1982.
Bangs was just 33, his end hastened by hard living. But his prose, including work for Rolling Stone, Creem magazine and the Village Voice, has survived in two posthumous books of his selected articles.
Blank and Jensen, a husband-and-wife team who act, write and direct, became prominent in 2002 with “The Exonerated,” a documentary play drawn from their interviews with innocent people who’d been wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In 2009 came “Aftermath,” culled from their interviews with refugees who’d fled to Jordan during the Iraq war.
They don’t see “How to Be a Rock Critic” as a form of slumming or creative ease-taking following those high-stakes precursors. To them, Bangs was no mere entertainment writer but a moral philosopher for whom rock music was both an end in itself and a weather-gauge by which he tried to read the state of society and his own soul.
“I think there’s nothing better than tackling the plight of the human heart” as reflected in how we respond to music, Jensen said in a phone interview Monday from New York, moments after he’d shot a guest performance in the CBS cop show “Blue Bloods.” To play Bangs in the one-man play he’s grown a mustache and will don a black leather jacket and “a little padding.”
The musical weather, for Bangs, was mostly cloudy. He lamented that a bond of respect and mutuality he’d felt between rockers and their audiences in the mid-1960s had grown tainted by 1969. While relishing exceptions that took him back to the jolt of vitality and uncalculating authenticity that had won him for life as a teenager, he mainly deplored a music scene in which the talent had gotten hooked on egotism and the fans on celebrity worship.
Having instinctively hated acts as disparate as Led Zeppelin and James Taylor for the perceived sin of narcissism, Bangs even grew disenchanted with former inspirations such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, whom he’d loved for embodying a sense of common humanity — flawed, unglamorous and fully believable.
Jensen, the obsessive music fan of the family, said he began reading Bangs in the early 1980s, when he wasn’t yet in his teens.
He proposed the play several years ago, and Blank enthusiastically joined in. She started out knowing nothing about Bangs besides Philip Seymour Hoffman’s somewhat cuddly portrayal of the critic in the film “Almost Famous,” in which Bangs is seen mentoring an aspiring teenaged music writer who lands a plum freelance gig for Rolling Stone.
Jensen went to Austin, Texas, to copy the complete published and unpublished writings supplied by Bangs’ literary estate. He and Blank, who have a 4-year-old daughter and divide their time between homes in Venice, Calif., and Brooklyn, read everything. They whittled the mass of prose until they had an 80-minute script they think will play well onstage while illuminating Bangs’ life, values and ideas.
What they’ve distilled has a chance to capture audiences, Blank said, because Bangs “was dealing with himself as a flawed, messy human being. He had a ragged, ruthless honesty with himself that’s important for us to get across in the play.”
The co-creators don’t see this as an elegy for a noble musical sensibility that died beneath an avalanche of celebrity culture, but as a way to fan still-glowing embers of the kind of independent and unpretentious creativity Bangs cherished.
Jensen said with a laugh that not even Miley Cyrus should be written off as unredeemable. “If I can get her to the show, maybe she’ll make her ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’”
‘How to Be a Rock Critic (based on the writing of Lester Bangs)’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 1 p.m. Dec. 15
Info: (213) 628-2772. https://www.centertheatregoup.org
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