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.
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.
Burroughs had a profound influence on Lester. In his search for interesting weirdos, here he struck pay dirt. Burroughs was everything that appealed to Lester Bangs. He was beyond the pale in every way you can imagine. A writer of the most extreme and obscene sorts of fantasies. An expatriate who lived in the wild underworlds of Paris, Mexico City, New Orleans, and Tangier, with excursions into South America in search of “yage, the final fix.” Burroughs’s adventures made Lester drool.
After Lester became acquainted with William Burroughs, there was never any communication between him and his mother. She was the symbol of the square world, a drudge and a bringdown at the best of times and an embarrassment at others. She was good only as the source of the rent money that kept a roof over their heads. Lester had his eyes on a greater future, a future that would include wild bohemian parties in Greenwich Village and Frisco, all-night poetry readings, affairs with beautiful and slutty women, and a thorough scientific examination of every drug known to pharmacology.
Of the drugs, it was hard to emulate William Burroughs when you lived in suburban El Cajon. There was no way to score any of the good stuff. Lester had a copy of a Life magazine special issue on drugs, with pictures of each category of drugs then commonly known. Morphine ampoules, marijuana lids, every kind of pill from white-cross amphetamines to Darvon capsules, lsd blotters, cocaine, and every other major category of drugs were rayed out in a photographic pictorial. Lester and I lusted after those drugs; we wanted to experience them. But, being young high school kids in the middle of nowheresville, neither of us knew where we could score.
This impatience to gain the drug experience, I think, colored everything that came later. Other cliques on campus may have had access to drugs, but in those first two years, we thought we were the only students in the school who wanted to get high. In the summer of 1964, just before school started, I went to Berkeley to visit my brother Terry, who was living in a wild beatnik pad on Telegraph Avenue. I took Dexedrine and smoked marijuana for the first time in my life. I also heard the first Rolling Stones album that day and got thoroughly loaded while listening to Mick Jagger sing “Can I Get a Witness.” Later that night, we went to an art theater to see Eisenstein’s Potemkin and Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia while I was still stoned out of my gourd. When I got back to El Cajon, I reported on my adventures to an envious Lester.
Not being able to get our hands on traditional drugs like smack, speed, or marijuana, or even beer, made Lester look around for substitutes. We tried lemon extract. We tried nutmeg. We tried morning-glory seeds. When Lester was a junior in high school, in 1965, we tried Marezine seasickness pills and then went to see The Carpetbaggers at the El Cajon theater. Nightmarish in the extreme. Somewhere in his readings, Lester learned about cough syrup and shoplifted a variety of brands to guzzle, until he found Romilar, a drug experience that he liked well enough to repeat.
I tried Romilar once after seeing how much Lester loved the stuff. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. But Lester saw Romilar as a conduit to altered consciousness that put him, at last, in the league of Alistair Crowley and William Burroughs. Imagine a staggering drunk who is alert, nervous, and itchy and raving away for hours. He started recording his Romilar adventures in long monologues, which he wrote out first in longhand in spiral notebooks, then typed on a light portable typewriter that he balanced on his knees in his easy chair, being too wasted to sit at a desk. These monologues later grew into his projected first novel — his answer to Burroughs’s Junkie — entitled Drug Punk. He also kept notes, the “Drug Store Dope” chart of psychoactive patent medicines.
I found these initial drug experiments harrowing and mostly stopped participating in the more radical experiments in over-the-counter drugs. We had mutual friends who sniffed glue and went on benders of their own, and some got into real trouble early on.
My older brother gave me pot and Benzedrine in measured doses during his visits to El Cajon at Christmas in ’65 and intermittently at other times. Terry had a gang of buddies who were older, so I couldn’t run with them as much as I wanted. I’d sometimes share with Lester when I scored. When I introduced Lester to Terry, it greatly expanded the scope of Lester’s friends and adventures.
One friend, Steve Brown, little brother of a girl in the drama department, entered high school when Lester was a senior. Steve Brown was so sharp and talented in music and wit that we called him Little Stevie Wonder. He had a remarkable ability to find and score drugs, and Lester and I encouraged him. Soon Stevie eclipsed us and started to hang with an even more hard-core gang of druggies. By the time he finished high school, Steve Brown used heroin and multiple other drugs. He died in 1971 of an accidental self-injected overdose of methylene dioxyamphetamine, as noted on his death certificate. Who knows where he could have scored such a drug?
The top of Mt. Helix served in the late ’60s as an open market for all kinds of drugs. By 1966 the great drug drought had broken with a vengeance, and you could get just about anything you wanted for a reasonable price. Marijuana, lsd, white-cross amphetamines, Ambars and Obetrols, and Tuinals, peyote and magic mushrooms, and Dexedrines, on occasion. But Lester had developed a liking for Romilar, even when he had his choice of the other drugs. After he graduated from high school in 1966 and was feeling like a free man for the first time, Lester took Romilar every chance he got.
He started Grossmont College in the fall of 1966, majoring, I don’t know, in English and creative writing, probably. He cultivated an image of Mr. Joe College Cool: shades, slacks, sport coat, and penny loafers. He got a car. He got a job at Streicher’s Shoes in Mission Valley, and that financed his college classes and his other interests, and it also gave him an incentive to dress like a professional and a scholar, just as William Burroughs always wore a suit and tie.
He always carried stacks of textbooks, paperback books, magazines, Marvel comic books, stroke mags like Playboy and Penthouse, and underground magazines like the Oracle, the East Village Other, the Berkeley Barb, the L.A. Free Press, and the Realist. Also record albums and notes for Drug Punk, along with Cokes, candy bars, Romilar bottles, and an ever-changing sampling of over-the-counter drugs and pills.
By the summer of ’67, I had graduated and Lester had finished his first year in junior college. Terry moved back to San Diego, and it was party time for real. The Summer of Love! That golden moment when all things seemed possible. In the Harmon-family compound, all my separate worlds of friends came together. The Harmons were radical college professors who lived with their wild brace of sons in a rustic Mexican-style house without furniture in the hills east of El Cajon. Lester moved into an abandoned meat locker dug out of a hillside on the property. Just a mattress, his record player, a light for reading and writing, and an extension cord stretched out from the garage. The party went on all summer. We played Sgt. Pepper, the Doors’ first album, Cream’s first album, Procol Harum’s first album, the Velvets’ first, Zappa’s first, the Airplane, the Dead…the list goes on and on. I think I remember Lester taking off in his ratty-assed car for a couple of weeks, catching the Monterey Pop Festival and visiting Haight-Ashbury at the flush tide of Hippiedom.
Somehow Lester got hip to the most potent patent medicine yet, the drug-and-isopropyl-soaked cotton wick inside Wyamine inhalers, a form of asthma medicine available at only one pharmacy in the county. The cotton wick was so repellent and toxic that it was next to impossible to swallow it, and we searched for something that would help in getting it down. If you could hold down even a little piece of the wick, it would shoot you the most intense speed rush imaginable, going for hours like a jolt from an electrical socket.
Once Lester discovered Wyamine inhalers, he had the perfect complement to Romilar. Together they not only kept you wasted in the extreme but also kept you flat-out energized all day and night. Those wicks were so potent that bits and pieces of them held their power for months to drop kick your ass into another time zone, and they became stiff and soiled with lint in Lester’s sport-coat pocket. We’d slice off bits of wick with a razor and swallow them in big Cokes at concerts and rock-and-roll nightclubs like the Palace and the Hippodrome, San Diego’s versions of the Fillmore Auditorium.
Lester was writing nonstop by now, and Drug Punk began assuming book length as it filled up notebook after notebook. He juggled his college classes, shoe-store job, and Romilar/Wyamine inhaler benders throughout 1967, and beyond.
In the summer of 1968, Lester was squatting with friends in one of a collection of derelict houses in El Cajon just off Broadway and within spitting distance of the future police station. The houses sat on railroad ties, waiting to be trucked away. There was no plumbing and no water; an electric cord ran to a small house nearby. It was a Tobacco Road ambiance. When bikers moved into some of the other derelict houses, it became a scene of heavy drugs and probably other crimes. Lester wrote in excruciating detail of a biker chick who pulled train for a group of bikers and anyone else who wanted in. In reality, it was a brutal gang rape. Lester read his account of the rape to a creative writing class and grossed everybody out, disgracing himself for the rest of the semester.
He moved back into his mother’s apartment on First Avenue, escaping by days the police crackdown on that biker haven. Living with Mom had its advantages, it seemed. He stayed at this apartment until he left El Cajon for good. I was only at Tobacco Road a couple of times. I was beginning to put distance between myself and Lester’s adventures. The rape story was related to me by Lester, so I am sure it happened.
The main album that summer was White Light/White Heat, by the Velvet Underground. Maybe still the preeminent feedback fuzzrock album of all time, and the biggest influence of any record on him. Also out that summer was Zappa’s We’re Only in It for the Money, a dead-on satire of Sgt. Pepper, and Cream’s two-record extended set, Wheels of Fire. Also the White Album by the Beatles, and the first Captain Beefheart album, even before Zappa championed him, I believe.
It was a wild election year, and we followed it intently. Neither Lester nor I was political. We treated the election like another media extravaganza doled out nightly on the tube: the war, the assassinations, riots, social unrest, and the Chicago Democratic Convention. We couldn’t get enough television. One of Lester’s favorite books was Seven Glorious Days, Seven Fun-Filled Nights, an account of a guy who shut himself in a room full of televisions and covered a single week, from Saturday-morning cartoons to the last lick of late-night dregs on the next Sunday night. Lester tried to duplicate that feat, dragging two TVs into his room. I remember fantasizing with Lester about hooking into some vast archive and viewing in chronological order every movie ever made.
When not hanging around his apartment, Lester, miraculously, held on to his shoe-store job and took classes. But his deliberately chaotic lifestyle was beginning to tell on him. While never one to adopt the plumage of hippie regalia, he let his hair grow long and greasy and began to look too seedy for a sales job. He didn’t bathe often enough, and his clothes were wrinkled and unlaundered.
He started filling out as well, putting on weight and becoming a hulking presence with the beginnings of a prominent beer gut — and he was still a year away from legal age.
My brother Terry, who got married about this time, discovered south of Banker’s Hill a beautiful Victorian house turned hippie pad, inhabited by college students and dopers. The Sherman-Gilbert House was slated for demolition but was championed by artist Robert Miles Parker, who specialized in drawings of old buildings. He founded SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organisation) and got the house designated a historical building. (Eventually it was moved to Heritage Park, in Old Town, and was saved for posterity, making the cover of the San Diego telephone book in 1998.) Lester was at his most irresponsible and destructive when he visited the house, leaving cigarette burns on a fine upright piano and a deep burn in a davenport. Terry’s wife Dodie laced into him vehemently, banning him from the house, to my intense embarrassment because he was my friend and Dodie was my sister-in-law.
You could say that Lester was wheeling out of control, becoming unmanageable and a general drag to be around. But then sometime in 1969, he found the groove that was to serve him the rest of his life. That was when he became published in Rolling Stone.
When Rolling Stone first appeared, I dismissed it after a cursory glance-over as a teenybopper magazine, but Lester immediately saw the potential, especially when he noticed a classified ad asking for record reviews. I don’t know how many he submitted before one was accepted, but I don’t think he had to wait long. That first time seeing his name in print — and his first check from the magazine — changed him forever.
I’ve never seen anybody seize the day the way Lester did. One moment he’s lolling about, getting high, working on Drug Punk, and taking college classes. The next moment he’s a published journalist, with money in his pockets and on the phone lining up interview subjects. Lester instinctively knew how to network with record industry executives. He thought nothing of calling up honchos at Atlantic, Columbia, Elektra, and Warner Brothers to demand free copies of upcoming releases for review purposes.
And, boy, did he score! Within a couple of months of his first published review, Lester had gotten on all the major record companies’ press-release lists and was receiving albums in the mail daily, along with the marketing knickknacks that went with a major release.
His bedroom, already a pigsty, became a treacherous mountain of record albums. If you wanted to visit Lester, you had to clear a space to sit. By this time he had turned 21, so there was no longer a problem with securing beer or wine or booze. With his record-review money Lester started drinking seriously. Always the perfect host with his buddies, he would have at least a six-pack of beer in the fridge, jugs of wine, or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, or, when he wanted to save money, Old Overholt rye whiskey. We drank a lot of “Old Overcoat,” as we called it, watery King Snedley’s beer, and jugs of almost undrinkable, locally produced Crazy Haley’s wine.
When Lester found used-record stores that would buy the albums record companies sent him, he got ambitious. Not content with just the rock-and-roll and blues albums he was getting, he wanted every album out there. He had some gall, calling up big-time record company executives in L.A. and New York, demanding this or that album for review. I don’t think anyone turned him down. Records he had no interest in went unopened from mailbox to resale pile. Ever willing to share the wealth, he gave a lot of records away to friends. I got some choice records from Lester, as did Roger Anderson, who was a classically trained flutist and came to rock and roll late. Everybody got records from Lester.
He was inspired as a freeloader, starting a pattern that continued until his death of plunging straight ahead, leaving others to take care of the grubby details, such as paying for his adventures. He got backstage passes to see the Buddy Miles band play at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in L.A. In a van driven by Steve Landis, a friend from high school, Lester, I, Roger Anderson, Gary Rachac, and a girlfriend all drove up to L.A. to take in the show. The van broke down in Hollywood, and after the show we spent the night in a Chevron station just outside the Paramount Studios main gate. There was nothing memorable about the show itself, but the drinks flowed freely and we paid for none of them. The next morning we split up and hitchhiked our separate ways back to San Diego.
Not long after that we returned to the Whiskey to catch a concert by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and Lester secured his first interview with Reed. Lester became the Velvets’ biggest champion in the rock press, at a time when many still thought of them as Andy Warhol’s house band. Lester wrote piece after piece, extolling them every chance he got.
It was the summer of 1969, when all hell broke loose. In the span of two months came the first Apollo moon landing, Ted Kennedy’s fiasco at Chappaquiddick, the Woodstock music festival near Bethel, New York, and the Sharon Tate murders in Hollywood. Things were getting out of hand. After Charlie Manson and his family became the main suspects in the Tate killings, things were never so cool for the hippies again. Nixon was president, and there was a backlash toward the countercultural types. Pure evil was walking in our midst, and you couldn’t deny it. Acts of senseless violence, such as those of the Weathermen during the Days of Rage that fall, made it harder to keep solidarity with any kind of generational movement, either politically or culturally. Even I had to admit that many longhairs I met at rock concerts were buttheads at best. Whatever kind of cultural revolution we thought we were participating in during the ’60s had failed, and it was time to batten down the hatches.
I mention this because I remember reading, on our way to the Buddy Miles set, Rolling Stone’s profile of Manson. The atmosphere of the time was getting Gothic and lurid, as if somebody had tossed henbane into the lsd punchbowl. It was as if an era had just passed and we missed it. Even the acid that had made its way to El Cajon was stepped on and adulterated, and the San Francisco renaissance was already history.
To Lester, however, it was all grist for his writings. He started branching out to other publications, especially Creem magazine, a venue that would afford him more scope than the space restrictions of Rolling Stone.
I remember one morning when I stopped by Lester’s place. Music came out the window and the door was unlocked, so I went in. Lester was sitting in his easy chair, pounding away on the portable typewriter perched on his knees. He looked awful: bloodshot eyes with black rings under them, disheveled clothes, long greasy hair, and a body odor that was becoming more prominent and harder to handle with each passing year.
He saw me and grunted a weak hello, then grinned an evil little smile. “I just now finished a 30-page record review of 96 Tears by ? and the Mysterians,” he said.
The deed was done on Wyamine inhalers, and he had been up all night at it. He insisted on reading the entire thing to me. It was the piece “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung,” and it represented a stylistic breakthrough for him. No chance that Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone would publish such a whacked-out raving piece of freeform fantasy, but Creem would. He was already bursting at the limits of the review form and looking for ways to expand his material.
I admit I felt frustrated by Lester’s blaze of activity, and I welcomed the news that Creem was looking for more writers to review records. I took up the challenge and started sending in reviews of my own, using Lester’s records. It turned out to be an easy gig: the editorial standards were pretty lax.
My reviews were accepted immediately and were published with no delay, starting with reviews of the first Black Sabbath album and the first Bob Marley and the Wailers album. My writings were actually pretty good, and I developed a style of my own, distinct from Lester’s, more openly humorous and detached, less likely to get on the soapbox for some ingrate rock group. Creem editor Dave Marsh compared me to Robert Benchley, one of the stellar compliments of my life. I also got on some of the record companies’ freebie lists, and my mailbox became engorged with albums and promotional materials.
I once asked Lester what kind of music he would make if he had his own group, and he said that it would be a cross between the first Black Pearl album and Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, at the time his two favorite albums besides White Light/White Heat. He was already well along with defining his aesthetic, which centered along the lines of hard blues and heavy metal rock and roll with a definite punk edge. He also appreciated other styles, including ballads and rock influenced by big-band orchestration, but nothing much from country-and-western styles of rock and roll. I liked a more melodic sound with jazzy improvisation, and I had a thing for chick singers like Grace Slick of the Airplane, Nico on Marble Index, and an obscure group from the Netherlands called the Savage Rose, headed by a nasty little honey named Anisette.
When other friends started contributing to the record-review effort, Lester was not above lifting our better lines. If Roger or I or somebody else got off a good wisecrack or a joke, Lester would steal it for one of his next pieces for Creem or Rolling Stone.
IIn the summer of 1971, Michael Ochs, an executive for Columbia Records, invited Lester up to Los Angeles to attend a convention put on by Columbia Records at the big convention center at Century Plaza. Lester wrangled an invite for me to come along. This was my first chance to see Lester’s freeloading-style personally. My mother dropped us off at the San Diego airport, and we made our way straight to the airport lounge and the first of many gin and tonics. In fact, you might call that trip the Great Tanqueray & Tonic Bender of 1970. We landed at Burbank’s airport and met Michael Ochs at (naturally) the bar, where we were polishing off a couple more gin and tonics to decompress from the arduous trip, a ten-minute flight.
Michael Ochs was renting a small house a few blocks from the Lockheed Aerospace Facility in Burbank, hardly a glamorous neighborhood. He shared the house with Alan Mason, an executive at A&M Records.
We had just enough time to set down our gear in the living room when Michael whisked us off to the auditorium at Century Plaza, where we had our own table and drank complimentary champagne and ate finger foods provided by caterers. The show was glittering and star studded, hosted by Columbia president Clive Davis, who introduced short sets by Chicago, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the whole Columbia lineup. I don’t remember how we got back to Burbank, but I think we made some cabbie’s nut that night.
The next day, Michael had to go to work, so he dropped us off on Sunset Boulevard and we made our way up the Strip. At our first stop, Atlantic Records, I got my first exposure to the glossy, high-powered world of the music industry. The executive we met there was Pete Sarnoff. Atlantic Records had just signed a big contract with the Rolling Stones, and their Sticky Fingers album was just out and was being pumped hard. Stones memorabilia was all over the Atlantic offices, including full-sized cutouts of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards set up in the corners. We got copies of the Stones album and the first Allman Brothers Band album. I couldn’t believe the swank and the wealth and could barely conceal my excitement. How could I get a job like that, I wondered, sitting in a plush office, entertaining visiting yo-yos, fielding phone calls from groupies and hustlers for free concert tickets, and typing up press releases on the side? What a life!
After that visit, we went to MGM Records, Blue Note Records, and RCA Records, where we met a distinguished gentleman named Graylen Landrum, who treated us to a power lunch at a tony Sunset Strip restaurant. Everywhere we went we were given free albums, T-shirts, and press kits, including a large dirigible-shaped balloon to advertise the latest Led Zeppelin album. By the time we made it to United Artists, we were so loaded down that we had to stash the stuff somewhere, and so the young executive there named Marty Cerf loaned us his car for the rest of our trip.
We drove that car everywhere and soon learned the lay of the land. L.A. was the place to be if you wanted to make it big. By the third day of our visit, when we hooked up with Michael Ochs at his office, we had the jaded appetites of Hollywood insiders. Columbia Records was a gigantic operation that combined administration and marketing departments with large recording studios. It was a beehive of activity. We met the group Crabby Appleton, who had released one successful album on Elektra and then moved over to Columbia for a second album that disappeared without a trace.
We caught most of the events of the convention and got into some backstage parties. One night we were invited to a private bash held at a marble-walled trophy home in Bel Air Estates. I don’t know who all was there, or who the place belonged to, but the bartender served up Tanqueray and tonics for us, strong and bitter and just for the asking. People ringed the swimming pool or looked out the bay window at the panoramic grid of L.A. below. Lester got into an argument with some guy on the relative virtues of Ginger Baker’s Air Force and Grand Funk Railroad. I scouted around and found the party within the party in a leather-and-mahogany-paneled office, where people I had never met before graciously let me snort some of the cocaine they were chopping up on a mirror on the huge desk.
The last night of the convention, Michael Ochs got us in to see Cheech and Chong at the Troubadour, where we were served more free drinks — this time shots of tequila — and later we caught the late show at the Whiskey. Lester had scored a big interview that night: we were invited to attend Captain Beefheart’s recording session at the Elektra recording studios, scheduled for 3:00 a.m.
When we arrived at the recording studio, the place was deserted, but it was decked out with all the comforts, including sauna, waterbed, and an old Coke machine stocked with short Coors bottles for 50 cents each. By this time the liquor was getting to both of us and we pretty much crashed. When Captain Beefheart showed up, along with his guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo, we were too wasted to do justice to an interview, and Beefheart berated us for abusing our bodies, as we obviously were. He himself was sipping from a bottle of Green Chartreuse (for his voice, he said). I decided to keep quiet and listen to the Captain lay down a couple of tracks of vocals while Zoot Horn Rollo played a complex blues riff that sounded like Japanese Kabuki music.
When we left the studio it was daylight, a smoggy, doleful morning that showed how ugly Hollywood can be when you are coming down off a drunk. On my last day of the trip we stayed mostly at Michael Ochs’s house, where Lester noticed that I was dragging a little. He said he knew what would perk me up and drove to a nearby liquor store, where he bought a fifth of Tanqueray. But I had had enough and just wanted to take my winnings and vamanos; I had to get back to my job. Somehow I made it to the airport, although I don’t remember which one, and came home. Lester stayed a few more days, making contacts for magazine pieces.
There would be other trips. One could get used to hanging out in Hollywood, and Marty Cerf had given us carte blanche to stay at his hip little bungalow a couple of blocks south of Sunset, right in the heart of Hollywood. By this time Lester was on the move so much that I couldn’t keep up with him. No matter. I started making my own arrangements for free plane tickets and met up with Lester on the fly, as it were.
Marty Cerf was more than a music company executive. He was a rock-and-roll historian. In his office at United Artists he had filled one wall with a massive collection of vintage 45s that went all the way back to the rockabilly roots of rock and roll. He also edited his own magazine, named Phonograph Record Magazine, and I started writing reviews for it, expanding my outlet for material. At Marty Cerf’s place I met Screaming Lord Sutch, came to appreciate such UA groups as the Groundhogs and Family, and listened while Marty interviewed an expert on ufo sightings.
It was on one of these trips that I met Danny Sugarman, a ratty-assed little teenager, son of a Hollywood somebody, who hung around the record companies and made a pest of himself. He latched on to Lester like a starstruck groupie and even visited Lester at his apartment in El Cajon.
Danny Sugarman’s main claim to fame was that he was a factotum for Jim Morrison of the Doors. He promised us complete sets of the Doors albums, but he never came through on that. He showed us how Jim Morrison drank fifths of Jack Daniel’s, chugging away on the bottle like it was pop. I don’t recall Lester liking him much, but you had to admit he managed to weasel his way into a lot of exclusive places. He later coauthored a biography of Jim Morrison called No One Here Gets Out Alive.
The Rolling Stones didn’t make the Woodstock festival. But they were determined to make up for that blank spot in their musical résumé by hosting a free concert when they finished their mega U.S. tour in the winter of 1969. Then the announcement came down that the Stones would have a multihumongous gathering of the tribes complete with hot opening acts, including the Airplane, the Dead, the Animals, all the San Francisco groups, and a lineup maybe even bigger than Woodstock.
It was a cool December night at Roger’s house in El Cajon when Roger, Jim Bovee, and Lester heard about the concert on TV or radio, and they all agreed to go north and make the scene. (I wasn’t there that night, thank God.) The three of them counted out their change, grabbed their cigarettes, six-packs, and drugs, and piled into Roger’s car for the drive to a hazily defined destination somewhere east of Oakland. I believe that Lester wrote about the trip, probably included in his posthumously collected book of his writings, Psychotic Reactions.
Roger was funny. In high school he played flute in the orchestra and was into classical music. Born into a family of amateur musicians, Roger knew some of the most complex, sophisticated music in the classical repertoire, and he used to harangue me, challenging me to turn away from that pop shit and learn about real music. He kept after me to play Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra over and over until I “got” it, likewise Varèse’s Arcana. Roger knew his stuff and didn’t much like the rest of the crap out there, until he got loaded the first few times and Lester blasted him with White Light/White Heat and Rolling Stones albums. Roger turned into the most fanatical convert, and the classics were discarded. The Rolling Stones were God. Roger slavered over the Stones, the Velvets, and Led Zeppelin, the louder the better. Personality changes were happening all around, as everybody got progressively twisted on drugs. Thinking back, I find it interesting how important the music was to us, how it mixed with the dope and the sexual relationships and the politics.
Lester got himself invited by Impulse Records to attend a jazz record company convention. When he arrived at the plush Japanese-owned Miyako Hotel in San Francisco, where the convention was held, he gave me a call and invited me up, plane tickets courtesy of the record company. I hightailed it to the airport. It was a mad dash to San Francisco: I was missing out on precious freeloading party time. I ran like a mad dog to the hotel, and when I got to Lester’s suite there was a full room-service buffet laid out on white tablecloth, with giant shrimp cocktails, crab cakes, and large drinks of grog cocktails, navy grog highballs complete with little parasols, and garnishes — all of it on his complimentary expense account.
What was weird was that neither Lester nor I had any money on us; all I had was a return ticket back to San Diego. I don’t know if Lester had even that. We partied with Bay Area writers who were there for the convention, including Lillian Roxon, Greg Shaw, and Ed Ward, and we met Paul Krassner at the free-form jazz concert where I heard John Klemmer do his Coltrane imitation. We toured San Francisco and drank lots of grog drinks, and when the time came to check out, Lester, with a flourish, signed his name on a tab that had swelled to hundreds of dollars in food and liquor bills, all of it on the record company.
After the convention we visited Ed Ward at his place in Sausalito and then stayed with Greg and Sandy Shaw, who had a place in Fairfax, a woodsy little burg in bucolic Marin County, where we decompressed from the partying in San Francisco. Lester left to go back to Hollywood, but I stayed another day.
When I got home I found that Lester had landed the day before, then got the invite to another music function and took off without me. I thought he was hogging the opportunities and got mad at him for running roughshod over everybody in his rush for record company goodies.
I picked him up at the airport when he returned, and the atmosphere between us was a little tense. When we got to his mother’s place, he started up the stairway to the apartment when his suitcase broke open and his clothes spilled out. The odor of the dirty laundry was repellent and nauseating.
Lester was getting into hot water with his friends. His mom and his girlfriend Andrea were both giving him grief over his personal habits. His college career was a washout. He had no job and no money coming in except from record reviews and from sales of complimentary record albums. He wanted to move to Hollywood to hang out with the industry types that he patronized and abused with equal abandon, both on the phone and in his writing. It was ironic that his lack of personal hygiene was making it impossible for normal people to stay around him.
Lester could feel the walls closing in, so he agreed to an assistant editor’s position at Creem magazine, out of Detroit, a huge move for a Southern California boy who was still living with his mother. He tackled the Herculean task of boxing up and sending off his monstrous record collection, taking great pains to put cornball and gimmick albums in the first boxes so as to confound the staff of Creem about the kind of weirdo had they hired.
With perfect timing, Lester left town just as everybody around him had become fed up with his behavior and his body odor. It was an ozonelike effluvium, his body’s way of processing all the chemicals in the Romilar and the booze and the speed that he constantly consumed.
Both professionally, as a journalist of the pop scene, and personally, as a writer and as the public persona of “LESTER!” the literary icon he now cultivated, it was a good move for him. Lester was intent on making his reputation à la Kerouac, Mailer, or Burroughs.
He was a conscientious editor, and Creem blossomed into a credible alternative to Rolling Stone. When the jazz/rock band Chicago released their fourth record, they came out with a massive, boxed, four-record album so pompous and grandiose that I joked to Lester that it needed four critics to review it. He conferred with his editorial staff. A few days later he told me that they had decided to have seven critics review it: one for the shrink-wrap, another for the box, four critics for the disks, and one — me — for the booklet inserted in the album. It was, I thought, the only proper response to such a weighty offering.
I went back to college and pursued other interests, but I still took seriously my growth as a rock writer and critic. I contributed pieces to Marty Cerf’s Phonograph Record Magazine, to Creem, and to Rolling Stone. I went to Los Angeles to do pieces for Marty and hung out at his house while taking in gigs at the Whiskey and Troubadour, including Linda Ronstadt, the Mahavishnu Orchestra of John McLaughlin, and a private performance for selected media people in Ike and Tina Turner’s personal recording studio in Inglewood, not far from L.A. International.
From Creem came an assignment to do a profile of the top teenybopper act signed with Motown Records, Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5. I knew nothing about him since I had no interest in soul groups geared to 15-year-old black girls. Or so I thought. Only gradually did it dawn on me just how big the Jackson 5 were. When I met my contact at the talent agency Gibson and Stromberg on Sunset Boulevard, I was driven to the Jackson-family compound in Encino, where I was introduced to Michael Jackson, then 14 and the size of a midget. Michael lived in a surprisingly Spartan arrangement, his bed a single-sized mattress in a motel-like bedroom that he shared with one of his brothers. Besides the beds, the room had a chest of drawers, but not much else. I saw the living room and the Jacksons’ practice studio and caught glimpses of the old man, the girls in the family, the staff of domestics, and others.
I wrote my article and submitted it to Creem. But Dave Marsh rejected it, leaving me with no proof that I had interviewed the most reclusive of superstars in the pop firmament.
Lester returned once in a while after he moved to Detroit, to see Andrea di Guglielmo and his mom and to keep up with his old buddies. He was in town with Alice Cooper, who was on tour, and a lot of us old pals made the scene with Alice in the sky room of the Holiday Inn. At that press party, another gangling youth appeared, very interested in meeting Lester and gushing over Lester’s growing reputation. That was Cameron Crowe, who went on to become a big-time Hollywood director. Cameron was young but well connected. I ran into him again at the Jethro Tull concert at the Sports Arena. When I went to get a backstage pass, I was met at the stage door by Cameron, who had the last pass, and I was not let in.
Lester and I communicated mostly by letter at this time, and most of that concerned my pieces and record reviews. I continued to send in reviews for several months, but I found myself being turned down for free passes and cut off of freebie lists, and I came to a realization in my life.
And that was that without Lester around, I didn’t care much about the music scene. I didn’t have the ambition to stay on the leading edge. There were more groups forming and there was more material out there than I could keep up with. The entertainment scene was too faddish and trivial to take as seriously as you needed to if you wanted to be a player. I gradually stopped writing for the rock press.
Lester returned to town to spend the Christmas of 1973 with Andrea, who had an apartment in El Cajon. It was a festive time, and Lester wore an expensive new sport coat and much cologne from the many Christmas gifts he got from the Creem staff. He had put on so much weight that he looked obese. He had the flabbiest gut you ever saw and sagging arm muscles, but if he looked a bit dissipated he covered it up nicely with hail-fellow-well-met bluster and gab. The kitchen was well stocked with liquor, liqueurs of several flavors, and the makings for a potent eggnog punch. Lester was as flush as I ever saw him, and I think he took the occasion to propose to Andrea, but they did not marry. That last is speculation, but I’d bet money on it.
After that, Lester dropped out of my life. The phone calls stopped, as did the letters, and I only belatedly heard that he had left Creem, moved to New York, and started writing freelance for the Village Voice and other publications. When my subscription to Creem lapsed and I lost interest in Rolling Stone and couldn’t get the Village Voice at all, it was as if Lester had fallen off of the face of the earth. I still heard of his adventures from third-party sources and from what little rock press I read. The late ’70s passed, and I went on to live a life of which Lester was not a part.
I met him one last time when he came to town to attend his mother’s funeral. Lester was more subdued than usual, quieter and maybe a little depressed. He had stopped drinking and drugging, he said, and he had made an effort to clean up his life. He didn’t look healthy, all the same. He did have the old talent of attracting attention to himself. He made the front page of the Daily Californian. The paper ran a large photograph of Lester sitting on a bus bench reading a newspaper, his pile of record albums, magazines, and books beside him. The reason? The City of El Cajon had just installed brand-new bus benches, and the newspaper sent out a photographer, who took a picture of the first person he saw on a bench. Typical Lester: rock critic, magazine editor, gonzo journalist, bus-bench model. I asked him how he did it — how he’d been the one to get his face on the front page. One of the last things he said to me was, “What's a matter, you jealous?”
That question rang in my head for a long time, up until and after he died. I can answer Lester definitely. No. I was never jealous of him. I never considered him anything less than a friend, and I never begrudged him his success. Over the years, however, I have observed that others did, and when he died in 1982, I wanted no part of the haggling over his personal or literary estate. A lot of crocodile tears were shed by media people — all of whom had huge egos and careers to tend to — over what sort of legacy Lester left.
That is why I wrote this account of Lester. I shudder at the thought of the distortions that come from sources of rumor or innuendo or outright lies from people with bones to pick.
And lest anyone think that I have a few bones to pick myself, let me make clear that these reminiscences are as accurate as I can remember, and I give them to flesh out a fuller portrait. I wish neither to trash Lester’s personal or literary reputation nor to gild his legend with hyperbole and shaggy-dog stories. I suppose Ed Ward, Greil Marcus, Richard Meltzer, Dave Marsh, John Mendelssohn, Jann Wenner, Robert Christgau, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, or any number of other people who have known Lester over the years have their own versions of his life story. Did he keep up his drinking and drug taking after he got to New York, and did he ever try to stop? Since the cause of his death was reportedly an overdose of Darvon, then he was still into drugstore dope. Once he got into the groove that gave him fame if not fortune, did he ever try to get out of it? Did he ever try to stop living up to his image or to keep some distance between his public personae and his core beliefs?
I don’t know what is printed on the coroner’s report, but I maintain that he died at 33 of old age. At least his internal organs were old and used up, and I was an accessory to his start down that road.
Concerning the manuscript of Drug Punk, I wonder if any of it exists anymore. I read sections of it when Lester shoved them into my hands. I found it funny in places, amateurish in others, and at times too consciously influenced by the Burroughs of Junkie and Naked Lunch. One episode that I remember vividly, however, concerned the effect of Romilar on his mental state after a particularly long bender. He was with Andrea and he forgot who she was! You’d think a blackout on that scale would have been a warning to him.
And to Lester’s shade, let me address one final thought. I wish you peace, good buddy. And maybe we will meet again in the great by-and-by.