Lester Bangs may have died 36 years ago, but the legendary music journalist will be alive, well and manic as ever in the East Village once again as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.
“How to Be a Rock Critic” was conceived by Jessica Blank, who directs, and Erik Jensen, who morphs into the larger-than-life writer on stage for the solo show based on Bangs’ extensive writings.
Just how extensive were Blank and Jensen’s source materials?
“We’ve used Lester’s 15,000- to 20,000-page body of work as one long interview with Lester,” Blank said. “It took years — almost none of it was computerized, so Erik had to Xerox page by page and type all of the material into the computer so we could work with it.”
While the task was as daunting as it sounds, it was extremely beneficial to the play.
“We developed a really deep relationship with the rhythm of his writing, which was really wonderful for the process,” Blank said. “His voice is unbelievably theatrical. We wanted to adapt his writing and get the theatricality and vibrancy of Lester’s actual voice on stage.”
And that they do. Jensen was electrifying from the moment he walked out during Friday’s premiere, clad in a “Detroit Sucks” T-shirt, swilling whatever bottles he came across and breaking the fourth wall immediately to take viewers on a trip inside his mind and memory as he searched his dive-y, trash-littered apartment for his Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” record.
Jensen, in Bangs’ words, shares how he turned to music and equally flawed writers like Kerouac and Bukowski to escape his claustrophobic religious upbringing and his time with Rolling Stone, Creem and some of the world’s most iconic bands, effortlessly displaying both acerbic wit and his internal demons.
When asked what Bangs would write about “How to Be a Rock Critic,” Jensen and Blank took a thoughtful pause.
“I hope he would call it truthful and alive, because those were the two things I think he held up above anything else in terms of the music he loved,” Blank said. “He was always looking for authenticity and truth, and those were the things we felt a sense of duty to make sure came through in the play.”
Jensen thinks Bangs would call it “punk rock,” a phrase he had a hand in coining. “And I think the whole thing can be summed up in Lester’s epitaph that he wrote for himself, which was, ultimately, I hope people walk away feeling ‘he was promising.”
Punk still lives in NYC
While the legendary punk and rock clubs of Lester Bangs’ days — CBGB and Max’s Kansas City to name a few — are long gone, here are just a few places still carrying the torch in New York City:
• Clockwork Bar (21 Essex St., Lower East Side)
• Manitoba’s (99 Avenue B, East Village)
• Duff’s Brooklyn (168 Marcy Ave., Brooklyn)
• Otto’s Shrunken Head (538 E. 14th St., Manhattan)
• Saint Vitus (1120 Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint)
• The Bitter End (147 Bleecker St., Greenwich Village)
• Rockwood Music Hall (196 Allen St., Lower East Side)