Lester Bangs from El Cajon Valley High School yearbook.
“Many in El Cajon and La Mesa are committed to making this an annual event, kind of like a Mother Goose Parade for rock music aficionados,” says English professor Raul Sandelin, organizer of the First Annual Lester Bangs Birthday Bash at Hooley’s La Mesa on Friday, December 14. “Many of the people involved are Lester’s friends from El Cajon Valley High School, the same social group that produced Iron Butterfly.”
Sandelin sees the annual event as an extension of his documentary film about the late writer, A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs. “Lester became rock music’s most important writer just as rock journalism was emerging as a new literary sub-genre. It was a literature for the baby boom generation. Writing magazine articles had always been an established medium, and teenybopper mags had entertained teenagers for a generation. But rock journalism combined print journalism with fanzine sensibilities that appealed to the youth of the 60s and 70s. And Lester was the most visible rock journalist of this new, emerging genre.”
Born at Escondido Community Hospital in December 1948, Leslie Bangs attended the Lincoln School before moving with his mom through various apartments around El Cajon. By the time he was living on Lexington Avenue and attending Valley High School, where he graduated in 1966, he was already using the name Lester instead of Leslie.
“I came from a spic suburb full of Mexicans that eat tacos all the time,” Bangs is quoted saying in the book Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs. Much of his extensive album collection was purchased in El Cajon from the record bin of a Thrifty drug store.
While still in high school, Bangs occasionally performed with a band known as Thee Dark Ages, alongside future Beat Farmers singer-guitarist Jerry Raney and Glory guitarist Jack Butler. Both musicians are performing at the Birthday Bash. “We’re doing period-correct music as an acoustic trio with Evans Kontopuls,” says Butler, who was Bangs' roommate on "Tobacco Road" in El Cajon, where all houses were up on blocks, right where Ballantyne ended at Broadway.
“Although he was never actually a member of Thee Dark Ages," recalls Butler, "Lester was an honorary bonus player who would roll into our house band gig at the Hi Ho Club in El Cajon, where Parkway Bowl is today, resplendent in his floor length coat, kind of an early Country Dick [Montana] character, and we would call him up to play harp on a Yardbirds rave-up or some other loose jam song. While no virtuoso on harp, his level of energy, often receiving an extra boost from Romilar cough syrup [reportedly Bangs’ favorite intoxicant], would knock everybody out. Then, after a couple of wild jams, he would blow right out the door, leaving the kids at the teen club stunned.”
From 1966 to 1968, Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous) attended Grossmont College, which honored its former alum in 2010 with a posthumous Walk of Fame-style bronze star plaque. Birthday Bash organizer Sandelin heads up the Lester Bangs Grossmont Archive there.
In 1968, Bangs was attending dances at the old Moose Hall and reading his poetry at a La Mesa coffeehouse, Land of Odin. After crashing for awhile near Mount Helix with several musician friends, he moved back into his mom’s two bedroom apartment on First Street. Friends say he spent his time getting high on Romilar and grooving on the Velvet Underground, until taking a job at Streicher’s shoe store in Mission Valley.
He got fired from the shoe store in 1969, but by then he’d already spotted an ad in Rolling Stone, inviting prospective writers to submit album reviews for possible publication. His work there helped cement his legacy, which he further built at Creem, the Village Voice, and elsewhere.
“Before Lester,” says Sandelin, “you either wrote serious novels, or you wrote for teenybopper magazine. There was no middle ground. Lester showed that one could write about classical literature, a new garage band, and his personal relationship with his mother, all in one article. A writer could provide profound social commentary, and be funny and entertaining. Today, that's exactly what bloggers are doing, mixing important social issues with pop-cultural moments that keep their work accessible to their readership. Lester was one of the first to do that.”
A case can be made that Bangs was at least partly responsible for coining terms like punk rock. According to Sandelin, "Throughout high school, Lester was writing a novel called Drug Punk. The novel chronicled the adventures of Lester and his friends growing up in El Cajon...what's interesting with the name Drug Punk is that Lester began using the word 'punk' along with the word 'metal.'"
Bangs died of a multi-drug overdose in April, 1982. According to The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists, he was listening to the Human League album Dare when he died.
“He was thinking punk rock years before it started, he kept telling us that we should shave our heads and change our name to the Goons,” remembers Bangs' high school classmate and Thee Dark Ages co-conspirator Jerry Raney, who co-wrote several songs for Box Full of Rocks. “‘Jam Tonight’ is about him getting ready to come play with the band. ‘They Call Us the Goons’ is us imagining that we took his advice and went nuts. He was always rebellious about church, school, and top 40 music.”
“He got himself kicked out of gym class and replaced it with study hall, and somehow managed to get off an hour earlier than the rest of us. He was brilliant.”