Want to enter the world of Gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs without guzzling Romilar cough syrup, his substance of choice? The best way is through the music. And the writing. Both take center stage in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s How to be a Rock Critic, which is based on the thousands of pages of writing Bangs left behind in 1982, when he died at age 33.
To get in the mood for the world premiere of How to be a Rock Critic at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, we’ve put together a playlist of songs Bangs loved and lauded. Rock out to “Wild Thing” and “Give It To Me” by the Troggs, a band Bangs immortalized in a landmark essay titled “James Taylor Marked for Death.” Jam with J. Geils Band’s “Whammer Jammer” with the instrument of your choice — harmonica, air guitar or typewriter, the last of which Bangs himself played onstage with the band. And immerse yourself in “Cyprus Avenue” from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, an album that served as a lodestar for Bangs, “proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.”
You can find some of Bangs’ reviews online in the archives of Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. Perhaps you’ll agree with Los Angeles writer Maria Bustillos, that Bangs “had the most advanced and exquisite taste of any American writer of his generation, uneven and erratic as it was.” Writing for The New Yorker’s website in 2012, she explained what it meant to be a devotee of Bangs’ criticism:
What he was really leading us to was the one true church of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. There was subtlety and elegance in his reasoning, generosity, and the best kind of skepticism: the skepticism that turns back on the author himself. This last aspect of Bangs’s writing was the most revelatory to me. It was the virtue I sought most to emulate, then and now.
Rocker and writer Richard Hell concurred in The Village Voice in 2003:
Nevertheless, of all the most highly regarded rock journalists … Lester was the only one who valued self-doubt and who actually seemed to like the music more than he liked himself. Lester was a critic who reserved the right to be wrong, which seems to me admirable. Like many rock writers Lester took extreme stances, but unlike the other most flamboyantly contrary of them, he didn't paint himself into a minuscule corner of supported music, and he didn't go sour with cynicism and resentment …
Intrigued? How to be a Rock Critic is Upstairs @ KDT through June 29. If you want more Bangs after that, you just might have to turn to the Romilar.