REVIEW: How to Be a Rock Critic

All Lester Bangs wants to do is listen to his favorite record: Van Morrison’s 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks. If only he could find his copy. It’s got to be around here somewhere, beneath the splayed magazines, take-out containers, and just a few thousand other LPs. Such is the inciting dilemma of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s one-man play How to Be a Rock Critic.

I couldn’t resist the irony of a dead white guy telling me how to do my job, so I got a ticket immediately. How to Be a Rock Critic is not a pedantic or instructional title, however, but one referring to an early Bangs article first published in a small-circulation college zine. The one-act play – starring Jensen as the ill fated and infamous music journalist – is largely concerned with its subject’s gospel. Its full title reads: How to Be a Rock Critic: Based on the Writings of Lester Bangs.

Part of what drew me to the play was sick intrigue; I was positive it would be a shit show, or reductive and formulaic at the very least. And I have my reasons. Historically the portrayal of rock ‘n’ roll via visual narrative has not gone so well. Flicks like The Runaways and What We Do Is Secret (about LA punks the Germs) fell prey to laughable clichés and fabricated idealism, imbuing their main characters with far more nobility than the real people deserved. These biopics are the inverse of books like We Got the Neutron Bomb, which was unmerciful in its portrayal of rock ‘n’ rollers. There was no glamour or honor when Bob Biggs of Slash Records said of the Germs frontman, “I once saw Darby shoot up with gutter water!”

If there is one thing worse than the fictionalized depiction of rock stars, it is the fictionalized depiction of writers. Whether it’s Javier Bardem’s anguished “poet” in Mother! or Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in Baz Luhrmann’s extended disco-remix of The Great Gatsby, the characterization of writers is often bloated with grandeur. Given that Lester Bangs was a stalwart of both rock and writing (not to mention bloated grandeur), I wasn’t sure if How to Be a Rock Critic could escape a trite fate.

A living room awaits at the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall on Saturday. It is littered with pages and beer cans and yes, stacks of records like angular layer cakes. If I didn’t know any better I would write this off as a stereotype, only it looks exactly like my friend’s apartment, and that friend is in fact a writer. It also looks exactly how my apartment would look if I had the freedom to live alone and be the slob I truly am. So they got me there.

The play begins with a grunt. Offstage bathroom noises collect our attention and soon enough Lester Bangs is before us. “Oh, fuck,” he says, before asking us to wait in his hallway for just, like, 20 more minutes while he finishes “this review.” “Ok… ” He stalls, “What about 15 more minutes?” To appease us he doles out magazines from a milk crate, and chucks cans of beer to a lucky few. In this little preamble, one thing is quickly established: Jensen-as-Bangs is one charming motherfucker.

Bangs entertains us briefly, rattling off motor-mouthed nonsense and informing us that he’s been up for 32 hours straight. He’d love to stay and chat, but he’s gotta “finish this review.” Stumbling over landmines of albums, he urges us to talk amongst ourselves. He reaches his desk, yanks an old page from his Smith Corona typewriter, and does exactly what you think he’s going to do with it.

I would like to see one portrayal of a writer, just one, that does not involve a sheet of paper being crumpled up into a ball and hurled across the room. Piss on it, eat it – set it aflame on your stove for god sakes – just please don’t crunch it into an angry little ball and toss it behind your back. When a new sheet is rolled into the machine Bangs stalls. He huffs, and puffs, and bangs on the keys. When the words still won’t materialize, he concedes. “Fuck it… let’s listen to some records!”

Within its first ten minutes, How to Be a Rock Critic erects two totems of Lester Bangs that will duel for the rest of the play. The first being Bangs as critic, fan, and fanatic. The second: Lester Bangs, tortured writer. I’m a fan of the former guy. Jensen’s ability to distill Bangs’ impassioned and vast catalogue of music criticism is admirable. His monologues are delivered with the same dizzying wit and lightning-speed stream of consciousness that Bangs was known for, and the amount of writing Jensen has synthesized is downright impressive.

Blank and Jensen spent years getting in touch with the Bangs archive, reading, researching, and turning thousands of pages of print into a play. Their success in shaping Bangs’ voice for the stage might have something to do with the duo’s background in acclaimed documentary plays like The Exonerated, which grew from firsthand interviews with over 40 released death row inmates. What shines in How to Be a Rock Critic are the long-winded, multi-syllabic manifestos on music, rock stars, critics, James Taylor (who Bangs so famously wrote should be “Marked for Death,”) childhood, girls, fandom, and of course, Van Morrison.

Bangs’ hunt for Astral Weeks punctuates the entire play, acting as the hub connecting countless spokes of praise and diatribe. It is the talisman he needs to justify his claims about art, and if he could only “just find this record, [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][he] could show you!” When Bangs is talking about music, you believe his every word. There’s a contagious excitement Jensen conveys while putting on records and churning out rants, the same excitement Bangs was known to infect people with. The little details in Jensen’s performance, like cueing up a Carpenters album and slightly gesturing toward his favorite part of the song with raised fingers, are nuanced and spot-on.

Like Bangs himself, the play is charismatic, funny, and absurd, but at times deeply flawed. It is well known that Bangs died of an accidental pill and NyQuill overdose at age 33. His party animal habits and taste for drugs were as famous as his hatred for Led Zeppelin. This dark side of Lester – that “tortured writer” side – surfaces in my least favorite parts of the play. It’s not that I mind darkness, but Jensen’s rendering of Bangs-as-cough syrup philosopher can feel degrading at times. His sermons on writing feel like they were written by a writer, and not necessarily in a good way. I was reminded of Jeffrey Sweet’s introduction to his book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing, at one point. Namely that, “Playwrights don’t talk about writing with each other much.” Elvis Costello is often credited as saying, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I say writers writing monologues about writers talking about writing is like a man self-addressing his dick pics.

There is also the issue of pandering. Several times throughout How to Be a Rock Critic, Jensen begins a sentence, only to trail off expectantly so the crowd can fill in the blank for him and pat themselves on the back. It’s a gross little episode of rock ‘n’ roll trivial pursuit that probably pissed off me and me alone, because I’m a critic (and nobody likes a critic). I cringed when Jensen began a story about “a club called???” And the audience dutifully answered in unison, “CBGB!!!” “That’s right! CBGB!” he said with the intonation of a children’s show host. Little things like this, of course, do not amount to a bad play. Nor do Jensen’s depiction of Lester’s tantrums, or scraps of monologue that grated my skin with their commoditized dissent. These are matters of taste.

In a final, half-hearted attempt at finding Astral Weeks, Lester Bangs fishes the LP out of another record’s sleeve. He’s on the floor. After gabbing for 80 minutes straight – pausing only to guzzle beer and two bottles of cough syrup – he toppled over and landed in a pile of 12”s. We’ve heard about his overbearing mother, he’s lamented the death of his father, and he’s reduced Elvis Presley to two identities: “Force of nature… and turd.”

Bangs strolls over to his turntable with the rescued wax and cues up “Cyprus Avenue.” At long last, we can understand what all the fuss is about. For me, it’s easy to understand. By a sheer stab of coincidence, Astral Weeks is one of my favorite records, too. There was a period of time during which I listened to it at least once a day, and it would certainly be in my luggage en route to a desert island.

In these final moments, Jensen and Blank (and I suppose Van Morrison) have nailed the spirit of Lester Bangs, and all the things he sought in music. But what was that? In 1980, Lester Bangs sat for an interview with his pal Sue Mathews, who asked him, “Are you aware of changes in the sorts of things that you look for as a critic? Or in the way that you listen to music?” “Hmm,” he said, “that’s a good question. Basically all I look for is passion, and I don’t care what form it comes in.”


ONLY NOISE: Dropping The Neutron Bomb

only noise

Did my dad know that he might ruin me with a book? Of course not. What could a book possibly do? It wasn’t Story of the Eye, or Tropic of Cancer or even The Outsiders. It was non-fiction. Educational. All he knew was that his 12-year-old daughter was beginning to dress funny and gravitate towards a kind of music he couldn’t relate to. So, he did what any supportive parent would do: he bought me a book on the subject. But this was no mere book.

We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk was an oral history of punk’s first wave in Southern California. Much like its New York predecessor Please Kill Me, Neutron Bomb compiles hundreds of interviews with musicians, tastemakers, groupies and promoters into a sensational narrative. Edited by acclaimed music journalist Marc Spitz and former Masque owner Brendan Mullen, this was the book that changed everything for me – my answer to The Catcher in the Rye. It was a bomb indeed; reconfiguring everything I had ever known about music, writing, and debauchery – which as it turns out, all go hand in hand.

Informative the book was; innocent it was not. What my dad had unknowingly placed in my crimeless little hands was an instruction manual on bad behavior. He might as well have handed me the keys to his liquor cabinet. The pages were ripe with forbidden fruit, including, but not limited to the offensive quotes of The Runaways’ manager Kim Fowley (the “C” word abounds), anecdotes about shooting up with gutter water, and spreads of full frontal nudity. Full frontal MALE nudity!

It was a great time to be in the sixth grade. While everyone was speeding through the second Harry Potter tome, I was reading about people on speed, cutting themselves with broken bottles, smearing their malnourished bodies with peanut butter, and having all the unprotected sex. And of course, there was the music, the wild disruptor that was the birth of L.A. punk.

I am reminded of these growing pains with the recent publishing of Slash: A Punk Magazine From Los Angeles: 1977-80. Slash, which first came to my attention while reading We Got the Neutron Bomb, seemed to be the West Coast comrade of Punk Magazine and Search and Destroy. It was a newsprint rag of epic proportions when it came to chronicling the dizzying L.A. garage scene from its inception to its demise. The editorial backbone of the zine was as colorful as the bands they immortalized. At the core of Slash were founders Steve Samiof and Melanie Nissen, who recognized the importance of documenting the careers of the commercially challenged. Where A&R reps may have heard mayhem, the crew at Slash magazine heard the last cries of revolution. Or perhaps screams.

Slash championed the “dangerous” sound; bands like The Screamers, The Germs, Catholic Discipline, The Bags, X, all of whom cropped up in Neutron Bomb alongside countless others. But the magazine wasn’t only throwing roses. If Samiof and Nissen were the core of the paper, then writer/editor Claude Bessy, a.k.a. “Kickboy Face” was its blackened little heart. I remember Kickboy’s quotes in Neutron Bomb being true gems, and his belligerent snarl wasn’t any softer in the pages of Slash. In an early editorial from ’77, Kickboy lays into the giants of status quo rock:

“May the punks set this rat-infested industry on fire. It sure could use a little brightness! So there will be no objective reviewing in these pages, and definitely no unnecessary dwelling upon the bastards who’ve been boring the living shit out of us for years with their concept albums, their cosmic discoveries and their pseudo-philosophical inanities.” “

…let them remember the old days when they’d rather die than be seen with socialite creeps and being heard talking trash and then let them shit in their pants with envy. As The Clash say, NO ELVIS, BEATLES OR ROLLING STONES IN 1977!”

Kickboy Face was to Slash what Lester Bangs was to Creem, but probably more hated. He liked it that way. On the anthology’s cover is a small beckon for letters to the editor: “Write Kickboy! He wants you to respond. (He thrives on abuse).”

Abuse was something so pervasive in the scene, particularly with one of its most disturbingly fascinating bands: The Germs. The Germs, along with their ill-fated lead “singer” Darby Crash, were the nucleus of both Neutron Bomb and a second oral history by Mullen entitled Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs.

After plowing through the first volume, Lexicon Devil was wrapped and waiting under the Christmas tree, a setting so innocuous it made the book’s hedonistic contents all the more comical. This collection focused on the self-destructive tendencies of Darby Crash, nee Jan Paul Beahm, who died of an intentional overdose at twenty-two. While this fate was not rare in the punk scene East or West, The Germs left behind a concise body of work that was far from generic. They sounded only like themselves, and as with most explosive art, weren’t fully recognized until long after their disbandment.

The twisted history of The Germs became such a fixation that years later I would agree to getting a Germs Burn: an idiotic and unhygienic branding created when a burn-bearing pal sears an entire cigarette into your left wrist. Start to finish. It was one of the many grotesque rituals championed by Circle One, The Germs’ own little groupie cult. At the time it seemed like some honor had been bestowed upon me, but more than anything it hurt like hell. I hid it from my parents for years, and I’m lucky it didn’t become gangrenous. No one even notices it anyway. Zero punk points awarded.

Throughout Neutron Bomb, Lexicon Devil and Slash, there was continual mention of a film in which all of these characters came to life: The Decline of Western Civilization by Penelope Spheeris. At the time this film was referred to as a holy grail: out of print, impossible to find, etc. Whether or not that was true is now nebulous to me, but at the time I, of course, believed it. So imagine my thrill up on seeing a bootleg copy on the shelves at Singles Going Steady, a punk record store in Seattle. The DVD was certainly bootlegged and overpriced, but it was mine. I was about to watch the most seminal documentary in punk rock history…with my parents.

It quickly became apparent that I hadn’t been reading cute rock n’ roll stories for the past few years. If the music alone didn’t alienate my folks enough, Decline would make a point of doing so. This was 100 minutes of my idols crumbling before me. Darby Crash: too loaded to sing into the mic. Lee Ving: misogynistic and homophobic. Ron Reyes: terrible lyricist. At its best the film spends time with X, whose John Doe, Billy Zoom and Exene Cervenka are actually intelligent, coherent human beings. At its worst are suburban kids trying to justify their swastika armbands.

Not everyone was pleased with Penelope Spheeris for this representation. Others didn’t give a fuck. But as I sat in between my parents, recoiling at a scene in which Darby Crash and a woman named Michelle laugh about finding a dead man in her backyard (LOL!), I realized that maybe liking the music was enough. I didn’t need idols or ideals to know a good record. As Kickboy Face once wrote:

“But seriously now, stop fuckin’ worrying silly about lost ideals and forgotten causes. You’re still here, aren’t you?”