'Lester, You Changed Our Lives': Channeling Bangs In 'How To Be a Rock Critic' Husband-wife team Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank talk about their play based on the life and writings of legendary rock scribe Lester Bangs.
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'Lester, You Changed Our Lives': Channeling Bangs In 'How To Be a Rock Critic'

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'Lester, You Changed Our Lives': Channeling Bangs In 'How To Be a Rock Critic'

'Lester, You Changed Our Lives': Channeling Bangs In 'How To Be a Rock Critic'

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Lester Bangs was rock 'n' roll personified. He was only 33 when he overdosed back in 1982, but he left behind a remarkably influential body of work - not music, but reviews, unlike anything the world had seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC")

ERIK JENSEN: (As Lester Bangs) Led Zepplin are emaciated fops. Robert Plant cons the audience with I'm going to give you every inch of my love when he actually gives them nothing. The Jefferson Airplane is composed of radical dilettante capitalists. The Rolling Stones are some of the biggest pigs that ever lived. Bob Dylan faked his whole career, except he used to be good at it and now he sucks. Rod Stewart makes music for housewives and Sgt. Pepper ruined the rock of several seasons by making musicians even more self-conscious than dope already had.

RATH: That's actor Erik Jensen as Lester Bangs in the one-man show "How To Be A Rock Critic." The play is put on in a small space at the Kirk Douglas Theatre here in Culver City. When you walk in, you feel like you're in Lester Bangs' living room. Dozens of records sprawled on ratty tables and couches, along with magazines, beer and pills and, of course, a typewriter. In researching the role, Erik Jensen culled through the massive Lester Bangs archives along with his creative partner and wife, Jessica Blank.

JESSICA BLANK: Part of the tragedy of Lester is that he never saw himself as an artist while he was alive. He always thought he was a guy that wrote about artists, but he actually invented a new form of writing. He was a genius. He had a mind like no one else's and he had a voice like no one else's. And the man wrote probably 20 pages a day and had a ferocious appetite for culture and for life.

JENSEN: And drugs.

BLANK: And for drugs - I mean, for everything. You know, he was a wild man, so he - as a character, he's just compelling on so many levels.

JENSEN: And, you know, also, he was a big champion of ineptitude in art and the mistake in art and - you know, at a time when there was a lot of prog-rock happening and horrible - I mean, bands that I think are horrible like ELO and [expletive] like that. Oh, I swore, but that's Lester.

RATH: We can - we can...

JENSEN: Whatever, I can do that. We're not live. He was a fan of noise and garage rock and the fact that rock 'n' roll was something that anybody could do. And I think Lester recognized that whole cultural idea of picking up a piece of junk and turning it into something new was as beautiful as any symphony that a classical composer could write.

RATH: There's this line that you say - or that you say as Lester - close to the top of this play, and it's very sad.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC")

JENSEN: (As Lester Bangs) Nobody is ever going to come up to you on the street and say hey man, wow, you're Lester Bangs. Well, that Seals and Crofts review was really far out. It changed my life, man.

RATH: But the thing is, if he'd lived a little bit longer, that would've happened to him.

JENSEN: Yeah.

BLANK: Absolutely.

RATH: So many writers owe so much to him.

JENSEN: We're actually saying that with this play - Lester, you changed our lives.

BLANK: Well, and I think the thing is that, you know, it may be that nobody ever came up to him in the street and said that because they might not have recognized him, but I think the fact is, is that he changed so many - his reviews did change lives.

JENSEN: And also, I think the sense that he was completely flummoxed by crap.

(LAUGHTER)

JENSEN: You know, I mean, like, we live in a world of Auto-tune now where mistakes aren't respected. And I think that that sort of punk ethos is something that everybody could benefit from. Now you'll have to excuse me if I'm getting a little circular because having - having 32 pages of text out of the 15,000 that we gleaned through to make the play, but just having 32 pages of that memorized in my head creates kind of a Lester filter through which I see the world.

RATH: It is - like, I mean, you are physically exerting yourself in this thing. You kind of have a breakdown in this room. You sort of trashed the apartment, so are you tired today after doing that?

JENSEN: Oh, I'm exhausted. I actually - I was saying to Jessica this morning, you know, I started off the play feeling like a young John Belushi and ended up feeling like a very-old David Byrne.

(LAUGHTER)

JENSEN: You know, I just kind of want to sit in a chair and not talk to anybody now, you know?

RATH: Well, tough, you're here.

JENSEN: Right on.

RATH: So this play - there are kind of words that seem like familiar from his reviews. There are things that definitely sound like Lester Bangisms. How much of this is taken from his own writing?

BLANK: The play is an adaptation directly from Lester's writing. So our playwriting background prior to this has primarily been in documentary theater. With that kind of work, we are fairly strict with ourselves, and we're transparent about, you know, anything anytime we throw in a joke or, you know, something like that. This is not that strict. We gave ourselves a little more latitude, right, like because especially, we're adapting the play from, you know, 15,000 pages worth of primarily criticism, right, so criticism is not inherently inherently in narrative form, right?

(LAUGHTER)

BLANK: So we had to construct a story and tell the story of Lester's life as well as, you know, sharing his writing with the world. So, you know, there are places where we constructed some connective tissue sort of in the style of Lester et. cetera, et. cetera, but largely the play is adapted from his body of work.

RATH: So I'm curious, Erik, about this transformation you said about having - having Lester Bangs in your head and living as him because there's the funny side, but also he was kind of a self-destructive - well, not kind of - he was a self-destructive person.

JENSEN: You know, it's - when I'm in Lester mode, it's hard to be a - Jessica and I are married - it's hard to be a husband. It's actually pretty easy for me to be a parent because he's fairly playful. And I'm, like, not the most method guy in the world. I can go in and out. But your whole metabolism changes when you get a guy like this in your head. You know, I'm exhausted at the end of the show. I couldn't get to sleep until 2 in the morning last night. I think that Lester's brain was switching radio stations often, loudly. I've become a lot more sensitive. I'm a lot more paranoid right now. I want to do a lot of drugs, but I don't.

RATH: Stay away from the cough syrup.

JENSEN: Yeah exactly. And there's a lot of, like, self-questioning the goes on when Lester's in my head that I don't usually engage with - is this good? Am I doing the right thing? Does this have value?

BLANK: Well, that's the critic.

JENSEN: That's the critic, yeah. But I think I would like to get back to the point where I can have a conversation with my wife that doesn't circumnavigate the globe...

(LAUGHTER)

JENSEN: ...Certainly.

RATH: That's Erik Jensen along with his wife, Jessica Blank. They have written a new one-man show "How To Be A Rock Critic," about the rock critic Lester Bangs. Thank you both. It was a real pleasure speaking with you.

BLANK: Thanks for having us.

JENSEN: It was a pleasure being here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASTRAL WEEKS")

VAN MORRISON: (Singing) If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC")

JENSEN: (As Lester Bangs) We build them up. We tear them down. We encourage artists in their disintegration because we really do want someone else to live our lives and our deaths for us. It's cultural cannibalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASTRAL WEEKS")

MORRISON: (Singing) Could you find me.

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