Grossmont College alum, essayist, moralist, boozer, music lover, self-described “drug punk,” and legend — Lester Bangs (1948–1982), who grew up in El Cajon, is finally getting the documentary he deserves. Grossmont College’s Raul Sandelin, director of A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs, took some questions over email. Check out the Kickstarter campaign to finish the film and head to Grossmont in October for the film’s premiere.
How did you first learn about Lester and his association with Grossmont?
As an El Cajon native and “rock ’n’ roll kid,” I first learned about Lester Bangs as a teenager in the late 1970s. But I didn’t make all of the connections with Grossmont College, etc., until the last Lester Bangs revival, around 2000, when Almost Famous was released and the [Jim] Derogatis biography [of Lester] was published.
Also, Lester’s friend Rob Houghton published an article in the San Diego Reader titled “My Highschool Days with Lester Bangs.” That’s when I learned about Lester’s actual connections to El Cajon.
What gave you the idea to start working on a Lester Bangs documentary?
I’m an El Cajon cheerleader, of sorts. I’m always interested in some facet of El Cajon history. As the Boomers/Gen-Xers now become the caretakers of community and history, it’s only natural that El Cajon’s official history should include Lester Bangs, Iron Butterfly, the Beat Farmers.
So, I started the Lester Bangs Archive at Grossmont College (where I teach writing) in 2009. The film simply evolved out of the archive. There’s been a buzz at Grossmont for several years, probably the result of Almost Famous and the Lester revival of 2000. Another instructor, Sydney Brown, started the Lester Bangs Memorial Reading at Grossmont. The premiere of A Box Full of Rocks coincides this year with the fifth-anniversary memorial reading.
Which figures from Lester’s El Cajon years agreed to participate?
Many key players in Lester’s childhood: Milt Wyatt, Jerry Raney, Jack Butler, Gary Rachac, and Rob Houghton. These five guys, along with the late Roger Anderson, were Lester’s closest friends in El Cajon. Their collective story is quite detailed and compelling. Also, Mike Stax of Ugly Things magazine and Grammy-nominated musician and journalist Jon Kanis give “objective” interviews. Both are fans but never knew Lester. However, both have “studied” Lester, including his El Cajon years, since they were teenagers.
The surviving members of Lester’s old garage band contributed music to the film. How did that come about?
Lester sat in with a band called Thee Dark Ages in high school. He played harmonica on Yardbirds blues covers. After El Cajon’s Iron Butterfly “made it,” The Dark Ages became the top band in town. Thee Dark Ages’ frontline consisted of Jack Butler and Jerry Raney. Later, Jack and Jerry united with Jack Pinney and Greg Willis (Butterfly’s original rhythm section) to form Glory, which is basically seen as San Diego’s top rock band in the early/mid-’70s.
In the ’80s, Jack Butler formed Private Domain and penned Pato Banton’s “Absolute Perfection.” Jerry Raney went on to form the Beat Farmers, one of the pioneers of Cowpunk. Today, Jack, Jerry, Jack, and Greg still gig with their bands and occasionally jam with each other. So, it was very organic to get Jack Butler and Jerry Raney to get together as Thee Dark Ages. In the process, they even wrote six songs specifically for the film.
You’ve mentioned working against the “great man” theory when it comes to Lester and his hometown.
These “great man” theorists see Lester as self-made and El Cajon actually was a hindrance. Those of us from El Cajon, especially those who knew him well, have a much more nuanced view of Lester’s El Cajon years. And, we definitely see Lester as a product of El Cajon. If you like Lester, you have to like El Cajon because...Lester is El Cajon. He’s an El Cajon kid. He acts like one. He thinks like one.
What remains to be done to finish the film? What are your plans after it’s finished?
The plan is to finish the film in September/October. We have to have it done by October 22. That’s when we premiere it at the fifth-annual Lester Bangs Memorial Reading at Grossmont.
Since this film started as a student film and many people have volunteered to help propel the project, I don’t feel right trying to market the film commercially or profit from it. Instead, I’m hoping the Kickstarter money will allow us to press around 500–1000 copies of the film, which will be given to donors, Lester’s family/friends, music writers, media people, etc. Eventually, someone will probably pirate it and post it on YouTube.
And, my job will be done. Then, it can spread virally to who appreciates it. ■