“How to Be a Rock Critic” Howls For Lester Bangs

Erik Jensen inhabits the mind of the famed music critic—without the Romilar.

“Nobody likes a critic, so why be one?” It’s the central question posed in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s How to Be a Rock Critic (June 17–28 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City), a one-man show based on the writings of famed music journalist Lester Bangs. The play turns the ramblings of one of America’s most mythical writers into a flesh-and-blood encounter between the man himself (played by Jensen) and his readers.

Set in the artfully messy hodgepodge of records, beer cans, and empty bottles that comprised Bangs’ lair, the play begins with Jensen welcoming the audience like a frazzled host. From tales of his Jehovah’s Witness childhood and misfit past to remembrances of encounters with Hells’ Angels bikers and violent roadies, Jensen’s portrayal of Bangs has just the right amount of rabid intensity and childlike enthusiasm to truly breathe life into the writer’s words. Taking the audience through some of his more memorable encounters with bands like The Clash and The Velvet Underground, Jensen captures Bangs’ (sometimes literal) foaming-at-the-mouth devotion with his wild gesticulations and uncoordinated dancing, filling up the tiny stage like a bull in a decrepit china shop.

The joy and cynicism that Bangs often wrote with are combined in Jensen’s performance into a single twisted vine, as the critic’s devotion to rock and roll and rejection of its false idols overlap and turn him into a disillusioned—but passionate—listener with an eye for seeing through marketing bullshit and hero worship.

As a music writer, it’s hard not to feel a kinship with Bangs as Jensen portrays him, regardless of his cough syrup addiction and persistent pill-popping. Where his family’s religion failed him, rock and roll saved him. That feeling of searching for salvation in the grooves of a record is all too familiar to people who commit themselves to preserving, appreciating, or making music, and it makes How to Be a Rock Critic a thoroughly relatable story for similarly minded geeks everywhere. FL

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