Critics almost always write about art; art is almost never about critics.
Not so for How to be a Rock Critic, a one-man play that was part of this year’s Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. Erik Jensen as famous — some would say infamous — rock critic Lester Bangs regales the audience from his vinyl-littered living room with his life’s story through — what else — stories from his life, which is as messy as his apartment. Along the way, he mixes in his thoughts on criticism itself with excerpts from his critical writing, the content of which provide a subtle window into his character.
Unfortunately, the primary means of communication here is anything but subtle: Direct address to the audience, chronicling the major events of his life in as baldy descriptive a manner as the play’s title, verbally capturing the grounded eloquence of his passion for music but forsaking his creative meddling with form.
Since Jensen, who wrote the text along with his wife and the production’s director Jessica Blank, heavily rely on Bangs’ writing, it’s at the very least a well-written show (as all that focus on writers should be). Through their compiling and condensing, Jensen and Blank present a nuanced portrait of Bangs, tapping into the psychology of a critic without (for the most part) perpetuating customarily reductive notions regarding the profession (as most recently seen in The Greatest Showman).
Based on personal experience, the playwriting duo nail the hypocritical existence of a critic who so thoroughly believes in his love for an art form, yet also wonders how much of a fraud not only he is, but also his beloved art; Jensen fiercely externalizes this fiery inner turmoil in his performance. Though it’s probably true to his life, I can’t help but wish the script hadn’t harped on his dream to become who he reviewed: a musician. It’s an idea as old as time that many critics are simply failed artists. Even so, the show understands and conveys enough of Bangs’ artistry to sufficiently compensate for this misstep.
Though the dramaturgy is a bit too conventional throughout, the production makes a few interesting decisions that illuminate rather enlightening notions regarding Bangs. For instance, he viewed his relationship to music as that of an audience member watching a play — close enough to feel, but too removed to be a significant part of — thus justifying the existence of a one-man play about him. In addition, the volume of the music he plays for the audience — often to elucidate some insightful point he’s making about it — remains consistently low throughout, an indicator that this show is about his words concerning art, not the art itself. This idea further emphasizes the difficulty of capturing the impact of one artistic medium in another; the chasm between Lester’s writing and the music he wrote about is similar to the gap between theatre and music, and the gulf between fictional depictions of factual people.
Though bringing his words to life on stage inherently humanizes them AND him by placing both in the present human body in front of the audience, a simplistic autobiography doesn’t make for the most dynamic drama, which is especially disappointing given the dynamo subject. Near the end, he celebrates — in his distinctively stylish wording — the intangible, alchemic power of art, the sort that simply cannot be described in mere words (yet another source of his crippling insecurity regarding his chosen vocation). Though his sheer writing makes the best case to defend the argument that his reviews scaled these artist heights, the formal rigidity of the often-artificial direct address prevents the actual play from achieving this indescribable artistic magic.
Another recent rock-centric work of art committed this same mistake: the Academy Awards-shortlisted documentary Long Strange Trip, which is about the Grateful Dead. Art about other artists works best when the artist’s art informs the new art, which is as tricky to accomplish as the preceding clause is to read. Clearly explaining the identity of artists and their art is essential, but to transcend the forgettable norm, the identity of this new art should strive to embody its subject’s artistic identity. Which is why the conventional documentary aesthetics in Long Strange Trip are an ill-fit for such an iconoclastic subject as the Grateful Dead. Similarly, the aforementioned, equally conventional dramaturgical structure here does not properly honor the legacy of Bangs’ novel virtuosity.
Though flattered, Lester Bangs would probably think How to be a Rock Critic is a bit too square for his tastes.