Monday, May 11, 2015

Who Is America's Greatest Rock Critic?

How to Write a Rock Play

How to be a Rock Critic is a collaboration between husband-and-wife team, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen; they wrote it, she directs it and he acts in it. Inspired by Lester Bangs’ words, the couple spent two years creating this one-man play. They went through 50,000 pages of Bangs’ writings—both published and unpublished—and whittled it down to an 80-minute play that sheds light on his pioneering voice in music.

Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank
Jensen, an actor with notable roles in “The Walking Dead” and “CSI,” portrays Bangs. The couple's most notable work is The Exonerated, a play they co-wrote based on interviews with exonerated death row inmates. The Exonerated won the 2003 Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle awards and ran for more than 600 performances off-Broadway, toured nationally and was made into a TV-movie. How to be a Rock Critic is a Center Theatre Group commission, where it had a previous developmental workshop production.

Considered "America's Greatest Rock Critic," Lester Bangs was a pioneer—he put the “punk” in punk rock—and broke ground as the most influential voice in rock music. Bangs' story comes to life through the work of husband-and-wife team Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, shedding light on Bangs’ messy life and his revolutionary voice in music in How to be a Rock Critic.

Lester Bangs
Lester Bangs was a gonzo journalist who notably wrote music reviews for Rolling Stone and CREEM magazines. His reviews were known for their radical, take-no-prisoners style, “The reviews I did for [Rolling Stone] really stuck out like sore thumbs.” Bangs said about his time with Rolling Stone. He was fired from Rolling Stone in 1973, “[They] threw me out for being, quote, ‘Disrespectful to musicians,’ end quote. I wrote a review of Canned Heat…making fun of them. I guess you're not supposed to do that."

Bangs immersed himself into the subject of his writing—he lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and was considered a peer to the artists he wrote about. In turn, his writing was honest and matched the excesses, energy and passion of rock ‘n’ roll music. He is considered a visionary of rock writing—Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac rolled into one. His criticism often was filled with cultural references of music, literature and philosophy and his writing was brash, yet intellectual.

“The appeal of Lester shares a lot with Kerouac: that innocence and goodwill and drive to describe and be true to what matters in life. Lester, like Kerouac, reads like a real good friend to a lot of people.” Said punk rock pioneer Richard Hall in a 2003 Village Voice article.

Bangs became the editor the rock ‘n’ roll magazine CREEM in 1971. Under his leadership, the magazine led the punk rock movement and was the first to write about the then up-and-coming music scene. Many claim the magazine—with Bangs’ at the helm—helped conceptualize and invent punk rock. In the 70’s, Bangs was also one of the first—years before the mainstream press—to give massive exposure to artists who would become 1980's icons like David Bowie, Blondie, Kiss and Motörhead. Bangs left Creem Magazine in 1977 and moved to Manhattan, where he became a contributor to the Village Voice. He considered his writings from this period to be some of his finest work and he started researching and writing his book, "Rock Gomorrah."  He died from an accidental drug overdose at the age of 33—he was listening to Human League’s album Dare.

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Logo photo by Craig Schwartz.

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