Girls were attracted to him, although I don’t think he always noticed. He was too busy expounding on his new discoveries. He had gotten his hands on a crackpot book from the ’40s by Alistair Crowley, mystic poet and practitioner of the black arts. The book had a photo of Crowley with a wild, otherworldly glint in his eyes. Les copied that look, envisioning it for the dust jacket of his projected Great American Novel. The grimace eventually made the cover of his record album.
Lester loved stories of crazy weirdos, like Crowley, Edgar Casey, and Anton LaVey, wacko cults like the Illuminati and the Rosicrucians, mad poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, absurdist playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco, Sartre, and Antonin Artaud and his theater of cruelty. Also novelists like Henry Miller, Jean Genet, Robbe-Grillet, and Norman Mailer. He was so well read so early on that he was like a lit teacher even though he was only a year ahead of me. When I asked him to sign my freshman yearbook, he wrote out “The Great Skies are opened!” I’m probably the only high school student in America to have had Hassan I Saba quoted in his yearbook.
Lester had this quality that was like a lightning rod, and serendipitous things happened to him. On the last day of school in June 1964, when janitors were sweeping out classrooms, Lester found in a trash can copies of Journey to the End of Night by Céline and The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen. Who else would have such books at El Cajon Valley High School, and who else more likely to retrieve such books from the trash than Lester? Such coincidences, of an almost Fortean significance (Charles Forte being another hero of his), happened to Lester over and over.
The high school dances were the lamest, but the Friday night Moose Hall dances were almost wild enough to serve as El Cajon’s version of Liverpool’s Cavern Club, if you squinted your eyes hard. We pooled our money and got an older friend to buy jugs of wine for the Moose Hall, where we cheered garage bands from the neighborhood. In La Mesa there was a coffeehouse named Land of Odin that catered to high school students. Lester read his avant-garde poetry there. He made friends with local guitar players and drummers, some of whom went on to become good professional musicians and players in the rock-and-roll industry. There was Jerry Raney, later of the Beat Farmers, and Jack Butler of Private Domain. They played together in a band called Glory, which was featured at the cavernous Palace teen nightclub on Pacific Highway throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s.
From the start Lester always had the best, most outrageous records to listen to on his broken-down stereo. Nineteen sixty-three was the doldrums of rock and roll, and Lester listened to Mingus, free jazz, and blues records, Mr. Lucky and Peter Gunn albums, gimmick albums, early folkie Bob Dylan, and jug-band albums. He had Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, an album by Roland Kirk blowing about five horns at once, the classic albums Tijuana Moods and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (both by Charlie Mingus), doo-wop groups, Phil Spector’s records, and Motown records.
I don’t know where he got half the albums that he had. He prowled bargain bins, thrift shops, and used-record stores, and he didn’t always pay for his acquisitions. In fact, he was seriously into shoplifting, and I went along on looting expeditions until we got busted. Lester was let go, but I was holding and got to spend a couple of hours in the El Cajon police station and endure a severe talking to by my parents.
It’s hard to exaggerate the impact that the Beatles made. A dull and played-out music scene was electrified, and this time on the leading edge of a global scale. Kennedy’s assassination was in November 1963; the Beatles hit the following April. The raucous ’60s were off and running, and Lester drank it all in.
The Beatles did more than safe love songs for girls. They did solid covers of the best black artists of all time, and they mastered blues licks from the best bands. Lester agreed that you could dig the Beatles and still be hip. Soon Lester was up on the music scene in England. Before long the Stones overcame and outdistanced the Beatles in lowdown bluesy rock and roll; and then came the Pretty Things, the Animals, Them, and the Yardbirds, and all of a sudden there was more music happening than a person could keep up with. When Dylan went electric in 1965 Lester championed him in the face of the outraged folkies. The controversy raged in the El Cajon Valley High newspaper.
His mom was working all the time, and since there was no authority figure to tell Lester what to do, he did what he wanted. All day and night he’d stay in his room, reading or writing and blaring music so loud you could hear it across the street. His room was funky in the extreme. A favored easy chair with ottoman often served as a writing desk and coffee table, with excretions of material piling up on both sides: books, albums, 45s, magazines, comics, Cokes, food, ashtray for his cigarettes. The record player was next to his seat, and he’d juggle stacks of albums looking for the next record to play, while simultaneously watching TV. There was no order to anything. He piled his clothes and possessions randomly on the bed, on sagging and cheap metal bookcases, on the chairs, and in big heaps on the floor.
Music fought with literature for Lester’s attention, as did his girlfriend, Andrea di Guglielmo, whom he met in speech class and fell hard for, pursuing her for the rest of his days at El Cajon Valley High.
He found the Beats early on, with, in no particular order, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and, especially, William Burroughs. Not long after I met Lester he became obsessed with Burroughs. He even replayed the Dr. Benway surgical-plunger scene from Naked Lunch on the stage of the El Cajon Valley High theater. Nobody got the joke, or the allusion, except Roger Anderson and me.