I Saw the Lester Bangs Play and Stared the Death of Music Writing in the Face
'How to Be a Rock Critic,' an off-Broadway play about the pioneering rock critic, is a great reminder of how much the role has changed.
Photos by Craig Schwartz
Last year in The Paris Review, the Dean of American Rock Critics Robert Christgau likened me, some nobody you’ve never heard of, to this generation’s Lester Bangs, though I’m not sure why, exactly. I assume it has something to do with the fact that, like the legendary critic Bangs, who died around my age at 33, I have a reputation as a pugilistic writer, I’m a hopelessly ardent defender of rock, and I have literally never once washed a pair of jeans. So when I heard about How to Be a Rock Critic, a play about Bangs’ life, I figured I owed it to my predecessor to see his story on stage.
I should preface this by saying: Lester Bangs is not my god. He is not the reason I got into writing about music and I don’t worship him the way many (male) music writers do. Truth be told, I find his writing to be slipshod. At his best, his gonzo style of critical prose was righteous and groundbreaking, and created a template shamelessly mimicked by countless wannabe critics. But at his cough medicine-chuggingest, Bangs meandered like Grampa Simpson’s onion-on-my-belt ramblings that often amounted to a fuckload of nothing.
How to Be a Rock Critic creators Jessica Blank (who directs) and Erik Jensen (who plays Bangs) used Bangs’ collected writings, plus interviews with his friends, as research for crafting their story about him. It’s performed as a one-man play, which is the most fitting presentation format for a story about a music writer as it’s inherently the most masturbatory. The entire thing takes place on a set decorated to look like Bangs’ messy apartment, which is littered with beer cans, stacks of Van Morrison and Velvet Underground LPs, and the occasional prescription pill bottle.
Despite its title, the show is not an explanatory guide for aspiring rock scribes, nor is it strictly a biography of Bangs. While it does weave through key elements of his life—growing up a Burroughs-obsessed Jehovah’s Witness teen, witnessing a Hell’s Angels gang rape, navigating the rock and roll landscape of the 60s and 70s—the play is more focused on showing the audience how this obsessive music fan, who endlessly opined on albums like a sick compulsion, used music as a lens to critique the world. A never-ending quest for the greater meaning, one chord at a time. Bangs was a man who could hear a James Taylor song and sneeze out 900 words about how it was indicative of everything wrong with society. Or, at the very least, he could mansplain about The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” in an attempt to bed a lady.
Yet, being in some semblance of Bangs’ Converse All-Stars myself, all I could focus on while watching How to Be a Rock Critic was how much the gig has changed since Bangs relieved himself of the position, dying of a drug overdose in 1982 while listening to The Human League’s Dare!. It’s something I consider every time I watch him immortalized in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bangs gives cautionary advice to the movie’s protagonist, aspiring teenage rock writer William Miller. It’s a situation I’ve been in a few times: A wide-eyed college kid takes me out to coffee to pick my brain about cracking into music writing and I have to fight against every urge to leap across the table, grab them by the scruff, and tell them to apply to law school. Hoffman has slightly more helpful advice in the movie: “If you’re gonna be a rock journalist, you’ll never get paid much, but you will get free records from the record company.”
Well, apologies to all the little Billy Mills out there, but here’s a sobering 2018 update: You still won’t get paid much. In fact, with inflation it’s proportionately much less, if anything at all after hounding accounting departments for payment for several months. Or worse, your payment is “good exposure.” And record companies no longer mail you free records. Instead, your email inbox will be an unnavigable pit of expired Haulix downloads, SoundCloud spam, and publicists who “just want to circle back.” Labels are pretty conservative with releases by their big-name artists nowadays, though, so those usually come in the form of some ungodly native streaming media player which requires the writer, after signing their life away by clicking “I agree to the terms” several thousand times, to sit at their laptop and play each song individually. Exactly how art was meant to be absorbed!
Like that scene in Almost Famous, How to Be a Rock Critic is rife with small moments that snapped me out of Bangs’ dingy New York apartment and back into the modern world (where I’m sure the same building has been bought by a condo developer who raised its rent tenfold). Right from the show’s start, Bangs, who Jensen portrays with more Jim Carrey jitters than Philip Hoffman cool composure, presents his central career conundrum to the audience: “It doesn’t pay much, it won’t get you laid. [can confirm] ...So why do it?”
Being a critic, he says, “is wanting to inflict your tastes on other people” and, as a result, “most people will hate you and they’ll tell you to your face.” In 2018, this is half-true. People will hate you, alright, but no one actually tells you to your face. Instead, you can expect a dump of angry Facebook comments, threatening emails, and snide subtweets. I’ve gotten my share of the lot, and have also been shit-talked on stage but never immortalized in song like Bangs, though if any bands want to take a crack at it, my name rhymes with “Nazi.”
Bangs was an anti-social curmudgeon who would rather be right and than be friends, and for that reason, it’s hard to even imagine him existing in the current Like-driven monoculture of the blogosphere. If a fatal combination of Valium and NyQuil hadn’t prematurely ended Bangs’ career, I imagine Twitter would have. While he likely would’ve gotten a kick out of a box that lets you shout your neuroses to the world one sentence at a time, I’m guessing he’d be appalled by the group-think it fosters. I’m not sure how much time the average person spends in the depths of Music Twitter but let me tell you, it’s a cesspool down there. On one hand, it’s a brilliant discovery tool for writers—allowing them direct access to editors, artists, and publications, and the ability to stay up on conversations. On the other hand, it’s an echo chamber where music writers pat each other on the backs for their Very Good Opinions and shout down the dissenters—a giant circle jerk that the participants have mistaken for an orgy. This, in turn, reflects in the articles being written, like a Human Centipede of content.
Music writers too often now fail to dissect the thing itself, but instead write about the narrative around the thing. Or they write response pieces to other writers' critiques like some sort of lame poetry slam night. In doing so, they end up writing for an audience of… I’m not sure, really. Not for their own edification, as Bangs did, and certainly not for the reader. They write for other writers, they write for the dopamine rush of notifications, they write for the Hearts and Thumbs-Ups or whateverthefucks. They are chasing the clicks, and the number of shares has sadly come to equate journalistic value. (If ol’ Lester ever comes back to life, no one mention that the site Medium proposed paying writers according to how many “claps” they racked up.)
More dangerously, too many music writers in the internet age seem to be writing for the artists themselves. Writers are incentivized to treat artists favorably. After all, a share or retweet from them could rack up those sweet traffic numbers and thus increase the writer’s social capital (which, as I mentioned, is often the only capital you’ll get out of the gig). If you want a dark peek into how the sausage is made, I routinely have publicists pitch me on an artist by touting their social media numbers ("64k Facebook / 39k Instagram / 23k Twitter"). This is how the line between publicist and writer blurs, and how criticism devolves into a homogenous hybrid of press release-speak and internetty psychobabble that leans heavily on yass kween pop star worship. It’s a rapid devaluing of the written word, a melding of opinions, takes, and stray thoughts into an endless sea of nothingness.
Put simply, writers are afraid of being wrong, which is understandable. Unlike Bangs’ time, when a misstep in Creem would soon be buried below an incoming pile of new magazines which would reside on the bathroom floor, the internet is forever. As I’ve written before, music reviews have gotten quantifiably more positive over the last few years, with negative reviews becoming increasingly rare. This would horrify Bangs, who once famously put such a hurtin’ on Black Sabbath’s now iconic 1970 debut that Ozzy Osbourne called him a pretentious dickhead in his autobiography 40 years later. But now music writers tend to play it safe, treating the untouchable artists with kid gloves and instead going after soft targets, beating up on the collectively agreed upon punching bags like Ed Sheeran or Coldplay.
This applies not just to writers but to the publications themselves, the few of them that are left anyway—those which will surely soon be absorbed by larger parent companies until the Content Singularity is upon us. This conflict is nothing new, though. At one point in How to Be a Rock Critic, Bangs gripes that Rolling Stone started rejecting his reviews because they were, like, too real, man—by tearing down unworthy artists, he was costing the magazine precious advertising dollars from their record labels. This immediately reminded me of the stories that came out of the closure of MTV News last year, and how the site yanked a light critique of Chance the Rapper after caving to pressure from his management.
There were a few threads in How to Be a Rock Critic that still rang true today, namely when Bangs mentioned that the general consensus he had to buck against in 1972 was that rock was dead. The audience, which looked to be predominantly comprised of aging rock fans, got a kick out of the notion that the 70s would be considered to be anything but the genre’s glory days. But, like Saturday Night Live, rock and roll is one of those things that people always claim used to be better in some fabled time, and fail to appreciate in the present. In fact, defending the current state of rock has become the de facto Rock Journalism 101 topic.
The other thing that still rang true all these years later was when Bangs boasted that as a rock writer you can “jerk off five times a day, listen to records, and watch television.” Spot on. The only leg-up writers have on their friends with 401ks.
So I’m still not entirely sure why I’ve been likened to Bangs. But in reviewing a play about his life, I complained, I aired personal grievances, I talked an unhealthy amount of shit, and I rambled and meandered so much that I hardly touched on the fuckin’ thing. Hope he’s smiling down for that.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter, unfortunately.
How to Be a Rock Critic is running this month at The Public Theater in New York.