Full Circle

Lester Bangs: The El Cajon Years

Lester Bangs’ high school yearbook photo, 1966

Lester Bangs’ high school yearbook photo, 1966

A whole lot of writers have penned a whole lot of words about rock music since Paul Williams got the ball rolling on rock journalism back in 1966, but no such wordsmith casts quite the shadow of Lester Bangs. True, Cameron Crowe got a movie. However, not only was Bangs portrayed in that same film, by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but he’s also referenced in the lyrics of songs by the likes of Tullycraft, the Ramones, and R.E.M.

Leslie “Lester” Conway Bangs was born in Escondido on December 13, 1948, moving to El Cajon with his mother in 1960 when Lester was 11. In 1969 he answered an ad in Rolling Stone looking for reader’s reviews, setting in motion a career that would place the bar high for any music journalists following in his footsteps. By 1973, Bangs had moved on to greener pastures, eventually becoming editor of Creem magazine and recording several albums with groups such as the Delinquents and Birdland. He died on April 30, 1982.

While Bangs has become enough of a pop culture icon to rate mentions in film and song, has had several posthumous collections of his work published, and even has a biography, Let It Blurt, by Jim DeRogatis, video evidence of his story is scant. That’s a situation Raul Sandelin Films hopes to rectify with the release later this year of A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs.

The documentary will concentrate on Bangs “formative” years of 1960-1971, when he was still growing up in San Diego’s East County. With interviews set to include Gary Ràchac, musicians Jerry Raney and Jack Butler, high school friend Rob Houghton, and a host of others, the film promises to be definitive, providing invaluable insight into the early life and career of the late journalistic legend.

Sandelin has previously produced several short documentaries, but this is his first full-length feature. The film is still in post-production, but a rough cut was shown as part of Ugly Things magazine’s 30th anniversary celebrations at Jayne’s Gastropub in North Park on May 26.

Plans are for the film to be completed in time for a screening at the Lester Bangs Memorial Reading at Grossmont College in October, with further showings possible.

Director Sandelin’s reasons for making A Box Full of Rocks go back to childhood. “I’m an El Cajon native and grew up hanging out with other rock ‘n’ roll kids in the area,” he explained. “For us, Lester Bangs is sort of the most famous El Cajon-ian that we could look up to. When you come from El Cajon you don’t have many role models. Lester Bangs, for my generation, was sort of that older idol that we wanted to be.” While Sandelin never met him, through the years he has met many who did know Bangs. “I’m 15 years younger than Lester was,” Sandelin said. “But I’ve come to know people who were in his circle, like Jerry Raney and Jack Butler, sort of like the older brothers of the crowd I hung out with.”

Sandelin first became aware of Bangs via his writing in Creem magazine. “I forget exactly who told us about him, but we were reading Circus, Creem, and all of the other mags that were out and somebody mentioned that this guy from El Cajon was one of the best writers for Creem magazine. I remember starting to read him. A friend of mine’s older brother was getting a subscription to Creem and we’d get it monthly and pour through it.”

Sandelin’s decision to become a writer was partially inspired by Bangs, but his decision to become a film maker was more pragmatic. “I’ve done everything else in the arts,” he joked. “I grew up as a musician, then majored in literature and writing. Then became a college-level writing and literature instructor. Meanwhile, I’ve always enjoyed film, especially music documentaries. A Box Full of Rocks was something that used my music background, my literary background, my love for Lester, my love for El Cajon, and put it all together.”

A true labor of love, Sandelin laughs when asked about the film’s funding. “If it were to be a true documentary, I’d say it really hasn’t been funded, it’s just been a lot of elbow grease and people working for free.” Not quite, but close. The two-hour documentary will be brought in for around $2,000. Sandelin is quick to point out crucial assistance from the media and English departments at Grossmont College, where Sandelin teaches. Grossmont College also houses the Lester Bangs Archives. “That was very generous because it would have cost us a lot if we had gone out and rented that equipment. Also we’ve gotten a couple of stipends from the Creative Writing Program at the college.”

Sandelin has solid reasoning for concentrating his documentary on Bangs pre-1971 era. “Those are the years he lived in El Cajon; that’s what we had immediately at hand. If everything goes well with this and it’s well received, maybe I can use this to get funding for another film. I wouldn’t mind doing the part two. But basically, I’m here in El Cajon, Lester grew up in El Cajon, so what we have is what was right in front of us,” he said. “I mentioned what sort of budget I had, so that’s not a lot of money to even leave El Cajon. So we had to stay within our means.”

Part two could cover the second 11 years, which would start in 1971 when Lester leaves El Cajon and moves to Detroit. He stayed in Michigan for five years before heading to New York, where he passed away in 1982. “That second 11 years is when Lester really built his reputation. So that’s in the works if we can ever get the funding for it.”

According to Sandelin, over 12 hours of primary footage was shot for A Box Full of Rocks. “[It’s all] people who knew Lester, and also Jim DeRogatis, who wrote the Lester Bangs biography.” While cutting that much footage down to bare bones is tough, Sandelin assures that nothing was censored. “We had to get everything we filmed down to two hours, but there wasn’t anything specific that we didn’t use,” he stated.

Although there are still photos used in the documentary, sadly, there is no vintage video or film footage of Bangs to include. “This film looks at Lester in much the same way as books and films have looked at the Beatles’ Liverpool years,” Sandelin said. “This is before he made it big. He started submitting articles in 1969, so he was doing a lot of writing here in El Cajon from 1969 to 1971. But, the majority of his reputation was made after he left. That’s when most of the photos and film [of him] were taken after he left, unfortunately. But we do have some stuff — family photos, photos of him at Grossmont College, and so on.”

It’s clear that Bangs’ name will live on as one of the key writers of the 20th century. His work is set to resonate with generations to come. Sandelin is succinct on why he thinks Bangs’ writing will stand the test of time. “It’s because of its contemporary honesty,” he said. “Much like Shakespeare, who was very topical. We look at Shakespeare now as part of the literary canon, but he was actually a very popular writer. In many ways he was the Andy Warhol of English renaissance literature. His references were topical, political, and critical of society. They weren’t just stale words from a dead poet. And Lester is the same way. What Lester wrote still resonates in this post-sixties culture we’re living in. I hate to use terms like post modernism, but Lester was one of the first post modern writers who wrote to the baby boom generation. Now, that generation is retiring. But even generation X, generation Y, and generation next, all live within the logic of the sixties and the baby boomers. I think Lester is one of the great post sixties writers that we had.”

Sandelin hopes the documentary increases interest in Bangs’ work, but he’s just pleased to be able to help preserve the legacy of a local hero who happens to be a literary legend. He’s particularly proud of pulling together Lester’s old friends for this project. “None of us are getting any younger. I’m sure Lester’s friends will be around for a good while still, but I think it’s nice for posterity to get everybody’s interview. I think we actually have filled a living record here.” Sandelin pauses to note the DeRogatis biography. “We certainly have Let It Blurt, but those are quotes transcribed onto the written page. It’s not the same as seeing the person actually talking. I think we’ve added that dimension to the Lester Bangs archive and his legacy.”

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