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In the late nineteen-sixties, when rock criticism was first coming into its own as a discipline, it was a fairly macho, druggy, godless scene. There were no real precedents for the work, and even fewer institutional guideposts, which meant that the possibility for true ingenuity was high. The critic Lester Bangs, one of the form’s chief architects, wrote ravenous, intimate screeds that were predicated, always, on the quixotic but beautiful idea that music can save your life. His work—which appeared in Rolling Stone, Creem, Playboy, and the Village Voice—hinged entirely on the notion that records are high-stakes affairs, and should be consumed and judged with seriousness and impunity.
Though interest in Bangs seems to ebb and flow, I believe he is one of the most important critical writers of the last hundred years, and a singular stylist. (Like Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, or David Foster Wallace, Bangs is hugely tempting to imitate, which means the field is perpetually muddied by a lot of subpar mimics in whose work rambling bravado is substituted for heart.) Bangs’s prose is loose and musical; each sentence attempts, in one way or another, to approximate its subject, to inhabit and express a particular rhythm, a beat. To read him is to behold someone trying, desperately, to get closer to something he cherishes, to hold it down long enough to marvel at it and love it more deeply.
“How to Be a Rock Critic,” a new one-man play, running now through January 15th, at the Public Theatre, explores Bangs’s life, work, and death. It was written by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank (Jensen performs; Blank directs) and informed by “Let It Blurt,” Jim DeRogatis’s excellent biography of Bangs, from 2000. It’s a unique and moving piece of theatre. A potbellied, greasy-haired Jensen—wearing tattered bell-bottoms, Converse sneakers, and a black “Detroit Sucks” T-shirt—plays Bangs with tenderness and intelligence, scurrying around a set littered with empty Chinese takeout cartons, pill bottles, crushed Schlitz cans, magazines, and endless crates of records. “Nobody touch my fucking records,” Jensen warns early on. (The set, designed by Richard Hoover, is truly a marvel; I’ll admit I frowned in self-recognition, beholding its familiar mess.)
The play opens with Jensen, hunched over a typewriter, trying to finish a review. He calls into the audience for an adverb, while Black Sabbath’s “Vol. 4” spins quietly in the background. Jensen quickly establishes a kind of easy, knowing rapport with the audience. It’s the same instantaneous closeness that Bangs presumes with his readers: that we’re all exactly the same, just a bunch of dopes doing our best to make it through the day, hungry for whatever help and recognition we can get.
“How to Be a Rock Critic” incorporates passages from Bangs’s own published work—his profile of the Clash; the time he typed onstage in accompaniment with the J. Geils Band—as well as descriptive monologues sourced from his biography, including a particularly harrowing recounting of a gang rape he witnessed in the basement of a Hell’s Angels hangout. That the play is hermetic—it’s just Bangs, his records, and the audience—feels germane to its subject. Writing is lonesome. Yet writing is also a way to combat lonesomeness; Bangs was trying to commune with some imagined audience, to assure them that they’re not alone, and, in doing so, give himself the same assurance.
“Rock and roll has always been about myth,” Jensen explains early on in the production. While the critic’s job is always changing, the idea that a good piece of music writing should create, expand, or translate those stories somehow remains true. Bangs lubricated his work with drugs—he favored cough syrup, an unromantic if effective hallucinogen—and in 1982, at age thirty-three, he overdosed on a lethal combination of Romilar, Valium, and NyQuil. (Jensen, swigging from various bottles, becomes subtly more inebriated over the play’s eighty-five minutes.)
Bangs believed he needed the drugs to work, which—if we’re extrapolating here—means the work also killed him. This is especially tragic because a close reading of Bangs’s collected criticism reveals a deep and fundamentally generous desire to help others—to use record reviews to convince a bunch of goner teens that music could be a salve, a panacea, a fix. “How to Be a Rock Critic” focusses on Bangs’s desire to proselytize, to rescue everyone he could, to make criticism less about bearing witness and more about creating something new—providing a necessary conduit between artist and potential fan. The moments in Bangs’s life in which he failed to be a savior (he never entirely recovered from observing, and not attempting to stop, that brutal rape) haunted him. His writing was where and how he tried to do better, to become a more courageous and beneficent version of himself—not simply to observe but to catalyze.
I’ve taught rock criticism to undergraduates at New York University for the past eight years; it is a wild and hugely enjoyable job. One of the first pieces I typically assign is Bangs’s essay on Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” which originally appeared in “Stranded,” an anthology of essays edited by Greil Marcus, in which critics respond to the evergreen query, “What would your desert-island album be?” It’s Bangs’s most universally beloved piece, and my students tend to respond to it with a mix of curiosity and awe. “How to Be a Rock Critic” opens with Jensen scouring his apartment for his copy of “Astral Weeks,” and ends with him finding it. In his “Stranded” essay, Bangs describes the album as “proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.” He writes evocatively of “Cyprus Avenue,” a song about helplessness in the face of faulty or unrealizable love. What an unparalleled and inexplicable pain: loving someone who doesn’t love you back, someone you can’t have, someone who remains indifferent or inured to your mania, and to your need. A person becomes truly helpless, “conquered in a car seat,” as Morrison puts it. “It must be far more romantically easy to sit and watch someone you love die than to watch them in the bloom of youth and health and know that you can never, ever have them, can never speak to them,” Bangs writes.
Of course, “Cyprus Avenue” is queasy to unpack, too—it seems likely that Morrison’s narrator is, in fact, leering at a schoolgirl, though Bangs reads it as more about the mockeries of nature than sexual predation. It makes sense that the song resonated for him in a general way. He saw his own spiritual predicament, reflected: “By the end of the song he has entered a kind of hallucinatory ecstasy,” Bangs writes. “The music aches and yearns as it rolls on out. This is one supreme pain, that of being imprisoned a spectator.” Yet Bangs refused to let criticism become a mere recounting. He could do something better.
“How to Be a Rock Critic” ends with a stylus becoming stuck in-groove. The song is Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” the bit where Morrison dissolves, becomes nearly preverbal, repeating a phrase until it goes limp in his mouth: “The love’s to love, the love’s to love, the love’s to love, the love’s to love,” he warbles. If there is a better coda to Bangs’s life and career—to what he wanted and needed, to what he sought and occasionally found—I can’t imagine it.