In one form or another, music criticism has been around since the 18th century. But while rock ‘n’ roll certainly existed well before the arrival of the Beatles and the British Invasion of the early 1960s, it didn’t fully gain journalistic legitimacy until then, with New York-based Robert Christgau of the Village Voice often cited as one of the earliest “professional” voices in the field.
And then there was Lester Bangs, the wildly passionate (and wildly self-destructive) music journalist and critic who spent most of his very brief life (he died in 1982 at the age of 33) covering the music scene for two magazines — Rolling Stone and Detroit-based Creem — and chronicling the rise of the punk rock movement in the late ’70s.
“How to Be a Rock Critic (Based on the Writings of Lester Bangs),” the one-man show written by the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen that is now receiving a high-wired production at Steppenwolf’s cabaret-style Theatre 1700, captures the life and musical times of the man who saw rock as a profoundly transcendent experience, one that all too often became warped by the mega-business that grew up around it. And while the show’s subtitle is accurate, it could easily have been enhanced with a more feverish readout — something like “the agony and ecstasy of a zealous, fiercely opinionated fan.”
Blank and Jensen, best known for their formidable docudrama, ‘The Exonerated” (about the wrongful conviction of six people who were placed on Death Row and later exonerated), have done a radical about-face in terms of tone and content in “How to Be a Rock Critic,” with Jensen in a bravura turn as the dissipated but fervent Bangs thriving on the ideally paced direction by Blank.
‘HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC
(BASED ON THE WRITINGS OF LESTER BANGS’
When: Through July 29
Where: 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf,
1700 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 335-1650;
Run time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Raised in California by a mother who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness (his father, a truck driver, died in a fire when Lester was a child), Bangs was a self-described isolated mama’s boy who early on discovered the writing of the Beat generation (Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac), penned his own stories (burned by his mother), combed the bins at record stores, and for a long time sent out unsolicited reviews to Rolling Stone before he was finally given a chance as a legit freelancer.
From the start Bangs possessed a fierce love it-or-hate it mentality about the music he listened to, forever seeking a song’s power to create some sort of spiritual (and sexual) transformation in him — something Jensen brings to life with his inflamed riffs on the Van Morrison album “Astral Weeks” and the song “Give It to Me,” by the British band the Troggs. His other passions (changeable as they could be) ranged from Lou Reed, Patti Smith and David Bowie to the quintessentially mythic Elvis. He dismissed the Beatles and James Taylor. He was entranced by Karen Carpenter’s voice. He championed the punk movement.
Bangs’ own life, not surprisingly, was a hot mess. The play unfolds in his trash-filled apartment (cheers for Richard Hoover’s set, Lap Chi Chu’s lighting and David Robbins’ sound design), where his Smith-Corona typewriter sits half-buried on a desk, and stacks of records are strewn amid empty beer cans and food containers alongside the booze, pills and addictive Romilar cough syrup that together would be his undoing. The band he formed to see if he could create his own music quickly failed. His interviews with celebrity bands whose musicians were his heroes often left him profoundly disillusioned. But he continued to write.
Jensen, with his gingery hair and beard, expressive face, desperate body language and perfectly conjured unwashed demeanor, takes us wholly inside Bang’s brain and soul and heart and dissipated existence, giving us a critic who, not to be overly melodramatic, on some level died while writing the gospel of rock and seeking its potential for some form of salvation.
NOTE: Each night of the show’s three-week run will feature a post-show treat of live music. I was lucky enough to catch a set by Bethany Thomas, the Chicago-based singer-actress. Coming up (July 13-15) is the Lester Bangs Memorial tribute band with Jim DeRogatis (the rock critic who wrote a book about Bangs) and (July 20-22) David Singer & the Sweet Science.