A portrait of the rock critic as volcanic force
Contrarianism can be evidence of tenacious idealism or reflexive combativeness — or both, as in the case of the pioneering rock critic and card-carrying contrarian Lester Bangs.
Bangs, who achieved prominence in the 1970s and died at age 33 in 1982, often raged against the increasingly corporate nature of his beloved rock ’n’ roll. Because he wrote like a gonzo hurricane, his indictments could be obliterative. Sometimes, though, his broadsides in Rolling Stone and Creem and The Village Voice felt like the laments of a disappointed lover. Bangs wanted rock to be better — truer, fiercer — than it often was.
That passion comes through in Erik Jensen’s hyperkinetic, full-throttle portrayal of Bangs at ArtsEmerson in “How to Be a Rock Critic,’’ an engrossing solo show drawn from the critic’s writings by Jensen and Jessica Blank, and directed by Blank.
Set designer Richard Hoover takes us inside Bangs’s shambolic apartment, complete with a Smith-Corona Coronet XL typewriter awaiting his flying fingers and albums by Jimi Hendrix and others strewn about, awaiting their turn on the record player as the mood strikes their owner. (Kudos to sound designer David Robbins.) And Jensen takes us inside Bangs’s mind.
Attired in a black Thin Lizzy T-shirt and jeans torn at the knee, with his hair unkempt and his features dominated by a handlebar mustache, Jensen very much looks the part of rock ’n’ roll wild man. He hops convulsively about the stage when he puts on a record, as if the music has taken possession of Bangs, which in a way it has. The actor makes us feel the critic’s exhilaration in those moments, his disillusionment when an artist falls short of his expectations, and his scorn for sellouts, corner-cutters, and poseurs.
And what scorn! Bangs took no prisoners. Describing himself as a member of “the counter- counterculture,’’ Bangs dismisses Led Zeppelin as “emaciated fops,’’ calls the Rolling Stones “some of the biggest pigs that ever lived,’’ asserts that “Dylan faked his whole career, except he used to be good at it and now he sucks,’’ and maintains that the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’’ spoiled rock for years “by making musicians even more self-conscious than dope already had.’’
“How to Be a Rock Critic’’ functions more as a showcase of Bangs’s sensibility than as a life story. But Jensen’s portrayal makes clear that Bangs was not immune to that perniciously seductive “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust” notion that has claimed so many rock ’n’ roll casualties. (His early death was apparently of an accidental drug overdose.)
We need contrarians to kick at the foundations of our assumptions and generally shake us out of our complacency, but they can also grow wearisome. Even with a runtime of only 75 minutes, Bangs’s rants develop a repetitive, one-note quality at times.
Yet overall he is stimulating company in this stage portrayal: willing to acknowledge the contradictions in his own character and behavior, such as his quest for heroes even while knowing how illogical it is to look for heroes in the milieu of rock ’n’ roll, and candid about why he does what he does. “Ultimately, being a ‘critic’ just means wanting to inflict your tastes on other people,’’ explains Bangs, adding: “I simply want you to like the same things I like. I need you to like them. I have to make you understand. Then I will not be alone.’’
He reserved his deepest respect for artists who tried to open a direct channel to the raw, primal essence of rock ’n’ roll. Jensen’s Bangs responds with volcanic exuberance to the artists and albums that meet his standards: Iggy and the Stooges, the Clash, Television, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,’’ even Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music.’’ (As Jensen holds up album covers such as Janis Joplin’s “Pearl,’’ we are reminded of the glories of vinyl records, not that many of us have ever forgotten.)
Early in “How to Be a Rock Critic,’’ Bangs recalls his youthful decision to “have faith in the only thing that never let me down: rock ’n’ roll.’’ Contrarian though he was, Bangs would likely be pleased by how thoroughly this show about him is suffused with his belief that rock is worth fighting over, about, and for.
HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC
Co-written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Based on the writings of Lester Bangs. Directed by Blank. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center, Boston, through May 21. Tickets $60, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org