When Lester Bangs moved to Detroit to join the staff of Creem magazine, we kept in touch with letters and phone calls that came less and less often. The last times I saw him were during a boozy visit to El Cajon at Christmastime in 1973 and, briefly, in 1982 when he came to his mother’s funeral. After he moved to New York I lost contact with him, and whatever lifestyle he lived or adventures he got into I only heard about long after the fact. If the rumors and hearsay about him are accurate, however, I am not surprised. Repulsed, maybe, but not surprised.
Because it became common knowledge, I will not be spilling any beans if I let it be known that Lester drank a bit. In fact, this matter of his drinking and drug taking is crucial to understanding his life story. I am reluctant to write it. It’s a sensitive issue, one that I would rather leave private and not subject to the morbid curiosity of onlookers. But without addressing it, there is no way to understand Lester at all.
In some respects, not much has changed in El Cajon over the past 37 years. It’s a little more crowded, a little seedier, perhaps, with more transients and with the lowlife population that comes when a city overbuilds apartment houses and the tax base is inadequate to halt the disintegration of the urban core. El Cajon is a bedroom community of greater San Diego, less affluent than some areas, rather more integrated than it was in 1963. Back then, it retained traces of its agricultural past, the open lands and farm plots that got filled in with tract houses, strip malls, body shops, and the ubiquitous apartment houses. I remember horse pastures and vineyards in places occupied these days by parking lots and condos.
In 1963, Lester lived with his mother in a postage-stamp-sized house that she rented with her income from a waitress job. There was no father present, and his absence hung like a cloud over the household. I refrained from asking about him. There was something wrong about the Bangs’ family history, a suffocating, almost Faulknerian atmosphere whose cause I hesitate to name. His mother was a recluse, an unhappy woman who clung to her Jehovah’s Witness church as if it were a lifeline over an abyss. She was not one for casual conversation. I dismissed Lester’s mother as a tedious old harridan, and anyway, Lester and I had more important things to talk about. To Lester, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were just another social responsibility to be gotten out of, every chance he could.
About his family. I located Conway Leslie Bangs’s death certificate. He died August 4, 1957. He was born August 25, 1915, Enlow, Texas.
Age, 41 years. (Making him 33 in 1948 when Lester was born.)
Truck driver. Transient. Place of death: Route 3, Box 378, Lincoln and Metcalf Streets, Escondido. Cause of death: Partial cremation. Deceased trapped in a house fire.
Norma Bangs was born in Pecos County, Texas, on September 14, 1906. She died in Earp, California, March 13, 1982, of an aneurysm. Age, 75. (Making her 42 when Lester was born.)
Lester Bangs’s death certificate is on file in New York City, of course.
The only surviving relative that I know of is Ben Catching. Although I’ve met him twice, I do not want to bother him about Lester, since others have done so already. But he knows the answers if anybody does.
One myth about Lester’s high school days I want to squelch at the outset. I don’t know if it was perpetrated by Greil Marcus, Bob Christgau, or Lester himself, but it was untrue; namely that Lester was a lonely genius exiled in a wasteland of rednecks and yahoos.
El Cajon Valley High School, certainly, was hardly an intellectual hotbed. Not like Grossmont High School, perched on the rim overlooking El Cajon Valley and referred to by alums as “the Harvard of the foothills.” El Cajon Valley High was lower class and poorer, and it drew its students from a smaller pool. The 4-H Club was the biggest club on campus; my freshman algebra classroom was in the agricultural building, which stunk of cow manure and the gas fumes of auto shop. But the school had a drama department with a theater of its own. Next door to the theater was a music building for the school’s band and orchestra. We collaborated on musicals, including Damn Yankees and Bye Bye Birdie. There was also a speech department on campus, run by an intense young teacher named Barbara Brooks. Under her direction we read poetry by Dylan Thomas, William Butler Yeats, and T.S. Eliot.
Lester, I, Roger Anderson, Bill Swegles, and a lot of other students competed in district-wide speech tournaments. Some of the kids were extraordinarily intelligent, and if Lester felt alone or isolated, it was by his own neuroses, not from a want of friends. My freshman advisor, who was also the main drama teacher, was named Keith Richard. He introduced me to Lester as someone who could help with plays. We put on The Glass Menagerie, Ten Little Indians, Teahouse of the August Moon, The Diary of Anne Frank, and more, both during the school year and during summer stock.
Keith Richard coached us our entire high school careers. He died in 1968, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head.
We acted in scenes in Richard’s classes that we wrote ourselves or cribbed from a couple of early Stan Freberg and Lenny Bruce albums that Lester had gotten from somewhere. We gave that theater a lot of use. We also caught highbrow foreign films at the Academy and Ken theaters: Fellini and Antonioni, Truffaut and Godard, Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, as well as Peter Sellers comedies and the angry-young-Englishman flicks of Tony Richardson, broadcast on late-Friday-night TV. High school was hardly a cultural wasteland.
Lester stood out at once. Funny and quick-witted, he could bring class to a halt with a wisecrack or a joke. He could charm an entire room without trying. He had charisma. He was handsome then, with well-chiseled, striking features. He had no interest in sports, and except for a few softball games in gym class, I can’t remember ever seeing him engage in any feat of athletics. As a consequence, his body never developed any muscle tone.