I knew who Lester Bangs was well before REM sang about him. I was a bit of a weird kid and while still reading Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine, I was also reading CREEM. Now that isn’t to say I was reading CREEM when Bangs wrote for them. I wasn’t. But I have a bad-ass uncle who tried to teach me as much as he could about everything relating to the arts, whether it was theater, film, books, or music and any time he saw a CREEM in our house he immediately began talking about Lester Bangs.
I knew who he was, I knew his reputation and I remember how his death affected my uncle. When I was old enough to figure out how to, I tracked down a lot of his writing and read it over and over again. I didn’t understand most of it, but I loved it just the same. Lester Bangs has always had a special place in the dark corners of my heart. When I heard that Erik Jensen had a one-man show about Bangs that ArtsEmerson would be producing, well, I was unimpressed. He is not Lester Bangs. If I want to experience Lester Bangs it is now easier than ever to access his writing so I don’t need someone to pretend to be him. Go away. I’m spending my money on something else. Except my brain never really lets anything go so it kept nagging at me. This could be interesting. It involves music and the 70s…I love music and the 70s. Look the tickets aren’t that expensive and you can walk there from work. What else are you going to do? Go home and watch CNN and throw things at the television?
So I wore myself down and decided to check it out. Jesus H Christ, I’m so happy that I did. The crew at ArtsEmerson tried to encourage pre-show mingling and discussion by offering name tags for all the patrons, only except writing your name you wrote your favorite rock album. It is fair to say if Lester Bangs saw my album collection he would have thrown 2/3rds of it out. Also, mingling with strangers and arguing over music isn’t really my favorite pastime so I demurred. (But, for the record -heh heh, see what I did there- it’s a tie between Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Pink Floyd’s The Wall.)
Upon finally being let into the theater (which looks to seat about 100 people but my math could be off) you immediately are transported into Lester Bangs’ shitty apartment. Or at least the living room. Easy chair, couch, rickety desk with an even ricketier typewriter on it, and another table covered in albums and holding the most important item in his apartment…the record player. This room looked exactly like my bedroom from the 70s and 80s, complete with the floor so covered in albums and other crap that you couldn’t tell if there was a carpet on it or not. (I quickly realized that without my knowing it until now, Lester Bangs has always been inspiration.)
|Okay, so my bedroom didn’t have a case of Schlitz in it but the rest is pretty spot-on|
Immediately, without warning, the show began with Lester immediately acknowledging us. I’ll not spoil any of the show, but my cynicism of Jensen becoming Bangs for me dissipated pretty much within the first 30 seconds of his stepping into the apartment. Jensen wore a Thin Lizzy t-shirt which made me wonder if he changes t-shirts for each performance. I cannot tell you how much I have to hold myself back from going to more shows to see if he does or not. The show is quick. I think the website said 70 minutes. It feels faster, mostly based I’m sure on Jensen’s rapid-fire (but never muddled or incoherent) delivery. There’s even a little audience participation (not to worry for those who are shy, no one gets singled out or embarrassed…not really anyway). Thanks to Jensen, I got to spend a little more than an hour with Lester Bangs and it was funny and emotional and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity.
At the end of the show, out of character, Jensen let us all know that John Morthland, music critic, friend of Lester Bangs’ and executor of his estate, and the person who gave Jensen access to all of Bangs’ writings (and in turn became a cherished friend of Jensen’s) had passed away over the past year. It was a sweet, emotional moment where you got to see Jensen as himself…and it made me cry AND reinforced what a stupendous acting job Jensen had just done. Seeing him as Bangs one minute and Jensen the next was exactly what I needed to send me on my way. He was brilliant. This isn’t a review of the show, this is just an all-out recommendation: Go see this show before it ends on May 21st.
(One quick follow-up – I actually DID go back and see the show one more time. Jensen wore a different t-shirt and it was as brilliant as the first time I saw it!)