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Jim DeRogatis

Lester Bangs Comes Back To Life At Steppenwolf In July

On Sunday, rock ’n’ roll was officially without one of its most passionate, insightful, and influential voices for 35 years. Rock critic Lester Bangs died on April 30, 1982, at the age of 33, the victim of an overdose of Valium and Darvon.

This summer, however, Bangs comes back to life via the solo play How to Be a Rock Critic, which arrives at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre for a three-week run from July 6 to 22.

I’ve paid homage to Saint Lester on this blog numerous times, including the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his death. That post as well as my 2000 biography Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic both ended with an extremely rare and very funny piece that he wrote in 1974 called “How to Be A Rock Critic.”

That article along with a lot of Bangs’ other writings was grist for the one-act play of the same name by the award-winning New York-based documentary theater team of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Their previous credits include the much-hailed plays The Exonerated and Aftermath, and they’ve garnered rave notices for this show, too, during earlier runs on the West Coast, including here, here, here, here, and (most ironically given that the magazine fired Lester twice!) here.

The tone of the original article was irreverent to the extreme about the profession to which Bangs devoted his life. And that sarcasm, as well as the day I spent with him two weeks before his death, when I was a high-school senior drawn to follow the same rocky road, hint that our critical hero might well be dumbfounded to know that his work lives on lo these many years later.

Yet live on it does, via two immortal anthologies of his writing (Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock ’N’ Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock’N’ Roll edited by Greil Marcus and Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader edited by John Morthland), his portrayal by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous, and now in this play. From the Steppenwolf press release that went out today: 

“Legendary music writer Lester Bangs was an American icon. Lester traveled with some of the most iconic musical figures of the 20th century, peeling away the veneer between ‘star’ and audience and revealing the ‘greats’ as flawed and failing humans. Music could save the world. At least that’s what you tell yourself when you start out. But when the ragged, rebel ethos of the’70s gave way to the corporate pop of the ’80s, Lester lost the myth he’d built a life around, and died of a drug overdose in 1982. This solo play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen adapts Lester’s own writing to chart the life, work and death of one of the 20th century’s most ground-breaking, risk-taking, pioneering voices.”

But wait, there’s more: As a second act following intermission during each night of the play’s Chicago run, Steppenwolf has tapped some of the city’s most adventurous local musicians to bring some of the sounds important to Bangs to life after intermission. Bethany Thomas, who recently completed a residency at the Hideout that found her playing all of Lou Reed’s Transformer one evening, will perform for the shows on July 6 to 8, while David Singer and the Sweet Science will play on July 20 to 22. Both are prime examples of the cross-pollination between the underground music and theater communities, as well as familiar presences on the Steppenwolf stage.

As for the middle run, July 13 to 15, my own band Vortis will become the Lester Bangs Memorial Tribute Band, playing songs by or important to the subject of my book, the same way I did to celebrate its publication at the Empty Bottle here and Manitoba’s in New York City 17 years ago. I’ll also be taking part in panel discussions about Bangs after the Saturday matinees on July 15 and 22. So come on out, if only to throw rotten vegetables—which is probably exactly what Bangs would have done.

Tickets for How to Be a Rock Critic, part of Steppenwolf’s Summer LookOut Program, go on sale for $30 next Thursday, May 11, through Audiences Services at 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, and steppenwolf.org. For information, visit steppenwolf.org/lookout, and watch this space for an interview with Jensen and Blank closer to opening night.

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast or stream Sound Opinions.

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