Theater & dance

In ‘Rock Critic,’ the sound, fury, and passion of Lester Bangs

Erik Jensen in “How to Be a Rock Critic.”
Craig Schwartz
Erik Jensen in “How to Be a Rock Critic.”

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have just emerged from an intensive indie film project, which they co-directed.

“We’ve been in a cave the last three-and-a-half, four months,” Jensen says by way of apology.

In fact, they’re headed right back into a cave of sorts for their next undertaking: bringing their docu-play “How to Be a Rock Critic” to the Paramount Center for the final booking of ArtsEmerson’s current season. The one-man show — Jensen acts, Blank directs — is an effusive portrait of the late, unruly rock writer Lester Bangs, set on a lonely, bouncing-off-the-walls kind of night in his grotty apartment.


Bangs’s cave had just one real need: a power outlet for his turntable, so he could lose himself in the records he loved by the musical guides he worshipped — Lou Reed, Van Morrison, and Otis Rush, to name a scant few. The set for “How to Be a Rock Critic” recreates Bangs’s own New York City hovel: stained couch, strewn blankets, the clutter of cans, bottles, and prescription vials, and records. Stacks and stacks of lovingly abused and mishandled records.

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“It’s strange to be talking to other humans again,” says Jensen by way of Skype, from the couple’s home in Brooklyn. The film he and his wife just finished editing is an adaptation of Blank’s young adult novel “Almost Home,” about teenage runaways. They’re perhaps best known for “The Exonerated,” their award-winning documentary play based on interviews with wrongfully convicted death row inmates.

The idea for a play about Bangs has roots in Jensen’s own unsettled adolescence, when he was sent to live with a cousin in Green Bay while his parents were going through a divorce. His cousin read Creem (“America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine”), played a Telecaster, and listened to the Clash.

That summer Jensen would glut himself on the “gonzo” writing of Bangs, who’d had the dubious distinction of being fired by both Creem and Rolling Stone. As his own world was falling apart, Jensen says, Bangs and his fellow rock critics made him feel “not alone, like I wasn’t being talked down to. They actually had a puerile sense of humor like I sometimes did, and they could hear the frustration in the songs the same way I could. There was something about that that was very comforting.”

Years later, he proposed to his wife a play based on Bangs’s writing. At the time, she was only vaguely aware of the critic, who died of an overdose at age 33 in 1982. She knew him mostly from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cameo portrayal in the movie “Almost Famous.” At her husband’s urging she read “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung,” the 1987 collection that defines the dead critic’s frothing, sweating, hyperventilating — and one-of-a-kind — talent.


“I was totally blown away,” she remembers. “I said, ‘I have no [bleeping] idea how this is a play, but this is great. Why don’t you give the estate a call?’ ”

“How to Be a Rock Critic” is drawn from the entirety of Bangs’s output, both published and unpublished, which Blank and Jensen say ran to about 15,000 pages.

“There’s something special about internalizing someone’s words,” Blank says. They’ve seen it with their documentary plays. Without coaxing, auditioning actors will quickly find the rhythm of the subject’s voice, just by reading from the raw transcripts.

“The first time, it freaked us out,” Blank says. “Actors will organically pick up the mannerisms, the physicality, the inflection, without being told. So much of our psychology is contained in the way we use language.”

The couple first workshopped their Lester Bangs play in 2013 and sold out a series of dates in 2015 at two southern California theaters. After Boston, they’ll take it to Chicago for a run at the Steppenwolf Theatre, and they hope to produce it off-Broadway.


Each time they revisit the work, that means Blank gets to live with the father of their young daughter inhabiting the character of a rowdy, insufferable boozehound all over again.

‘They could hear the frustration in the songs the same way I could. There was something about that that was very comforting.’

“I call him Midnight Man,” says Jensen, who has been shooting a part in new episodes of “Mr. Robot” and has appeared in “The Walking Dead.” He also had a role in the ESPN miniseries “The Bronx Is Burning,” in which he played another ’70s-vintage New Yorker with a porn ‘stache, the late Yankees catcher Thurman Munson.

Blank welcomes the return of the Midnight Man, she says with a laugh.

“Lester lived in an era when it was still possible to be a wild-eyed utopian,” she explains. “People think he was an irascible cynic, and he certainly was that.” But Bangs, who grew up the child of a widow who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, “found his religion in rock ‘n’ roll.“

“The thing is, Lester ate life,” adds Jensen. For each essay with a wicked title like “James Taylor Marked for Death,” another was, he says, “Falstaffian.” (Example: “Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review, or, Who’s the Fool?”)

Jensen points to other dramatic monologues based on outsize figures, such as Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight” and Robert Morse’s run on Broadway as Truman Capote. In fact, had Lester lived, he might have grown into the canon, he thinks, like another Twain.

The playwrights find it intriguing that Bangs died at a pivotal time for the music world, when the compact disc and MTV were being introduced. Though corporate influence was already pervasive, music was becoming “mass-produced pop product on a new scale,” says Blank. “In a way, it feels to us like that’s what killed him.”

Even in death, though, Bangs’s writing can have a magical effect on anyone who loves music, Jensen says.

“It brings them back to that moment when they were 15, screaming out the window of a car.” A time when they didn’t have a care in the world, he says — using, naturally, a more colorful phrase — “and they thought they’d live forever.”

How to Be a Rock Critic

Based on the writings of Lester Bangs. At Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center, Boston, May 11-21. Presented by ArtsEmerson. Tickets $60, 617-824-8400,

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.