Erik Jensen Credit: Craig Schwartz

“John Lennon at his best despised cheap sentiment and had to learn the hard way that once you’ve made your mark on history those who can’t will be so grateful they’ll turn it into a cage for you.”

This sentence, from “Thinking the Unthinkable About John Lennon,” Lester Bangs’s subversive, caustic, and dead-on eulogy for John Lennon—and quoted in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen‘s How to Be a Rock Critic—could just as easily have applied to Bangs as it did to Lennon. The writer was most famous for various music-related missives in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and Creem, where he was also an editor, but he’s often been portrayed as a goofy and effusive exaggeration of a record-collecting nerd in everything from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous to Jim DeRogatis’s biography Let It Blurt. What Bangs should be recognized for is his colorful, exceedingly conversational prose style and ability, unique among the finest critics, to make his writing seem like one side of an extended dialogue with the reader. For Bangs criticism wasn’t a consumer report but rather an elaborate and oblique kind of autobiography, composed by an intensely sensitive thinker who was intolerant of bullshit.

Both the caricature of Bangs and the format of his craft help to explain why Blank and Jensen thought it might be a good idea to make a one-person stage show out of the writer’s autobiography. How to Be a Rock Critic is a 90-minute monologue—with some improvised audience interaction—in which Bangs (Jensen), alone in his room and office, runs down, in more or less chronological order, his life story (the death of his father; his Jehovah’s Witness mother; his run at Creem; his love of over-the-counter drugs, one of which, Darvon, killed him). The script mostly consists of various excerpts from Bangs’s essays, reportage, and reviews, and anyone with a dog-eared copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (the famous collection of Bangs’s work, compiled by Greil Marcus and released in 1987) will recognize lines from such hits as “James Taylor Is Marked for Death,” “My Night of Ecstasy With the J. Geils Band,” and the author’s famously moving appreciation of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.

The highlight of How to Be a Rock Critic is Jensen’s performance—he conveys all the vulnerability and enthusiasm that infuse Bangs’s words by way of a caterwauling delivery and expressive gesturing, though his sloppy costume and obvious wig feel more like an insult than an homage. But even his acting can’t overcome the play’s flawed conception. The beauty of Bangs’s writing is its messiness—the musings, tangents, anecdotes, and epigrams that somehow end up addressing the main point of his essay, and the way all this ephemera congeals into a coherent body of work. By compressing it all into an hour-and-a-half-long monologue, Blank and Jensen can’t avoid reducing Bangs into a cliche. It’s the very thing he hated most.  v