My Highschool Days With Lester Bangs
By Robert Houghton
From The San Diego Weekly Reader, July 13, 2000
When he moved to Detroit to join the staff of Creem Magazine, my contacts with Lester consisted of letters and phone calls that came less and less often. The last times I saw him for any extended period was during a boozy visit back to E1 Cajon in Christmas of 1973, and once briefly on a visit in 1982, for his mother's funeral. When he moved to New York I totally lost contact with him, and whatever kind of lifestyle he lived in the Big Apple, or the kinds of adventures he got into I only heard about long after the fact. If the rumors and hearsay are at all accurate, however, it sounds like the kinds of things that the Lester I knew would do and I am not surprised at all. Repulsed, maybe, but not surprised.
Because it became such common knowledge, then I will not be spilling any beans if I were to let it be known that Lester drank a bit. In fact this matter of his drinking and drug taking is so crucial to understanding his life story that I will cover it extensively. This is one of the main reasons why I am reluctant to write about Lester. 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 ways, not much has changed in El Cajon over the last thirty seven years, or so. It's a little more crowded, a little seedier, perhaps, more transients and the lowlife population that comes when a city overbuilds large apartment houses, and the tax base is inadequate to halt the disintegration of what once was a promising urban core. It's a bedroom community, basically, serving the greater San Diego area, less affluent than some, rather more thoroughly integrated than it was in 1963. Back then, it retained some of the traces of it's agricultural past, before all the open lands and farm plots got filled in with track houses, strip malls, body shops, and the ubiquitous apartment houses. I remember when horse pastures and grape vineyards grew in places occupied these days by parking lots and condos.
In 1963, Lester lived with his mother in a postage stamp sized rental house that she supported with her income from a waitress job. There was no father present, and his absence hung like a cloud over the household, and I refrained from ever asking about him. He was killed in a fire in Escondido, some years before. There was something deathly wrong about the Bangs' family history, a suffocating, almost Faulknerian atmosphere whose cause I hesitate to name. (Incestuous? Abusive? Insanity? I'm not sure, but his mother was a recluse, a desperately unhappy woman who clutched to her Jehovah's Witness church like a lifeline over an abyss and was not one for casual conversation.) At the time I was a callow youth and dismissed Lester's mother as a tedious old harridan, and anyway, me and Lester 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 reasonably established Conway Leslie Bangs' death certificate. He died Aug. 4, 1957. He was born Aug. 25, 1915, Enlow, TX
Age 41 years. (Making him 33 in 1948 when Lester was born.)
Truck driver. Transient. Place of death: Rte 3 Box 378, Lincoln & Metcalf Sts. Cause of death: Partial cremation. Deceased trapped in a house fire.
Norma Bangs was born in Pecos County, Texas in September 14, 1906. She died in Earp, CA, March 13, 1982 of an aneurysm. Age, 76. (Making her 42 when Lester was born. )
Lester Bangs' death certificate is on file in New York City, of course.
The only surviving relative that I know about is Ben Catching. I've only met him twice, and do not want to bother him about Lester, as I know others have done so already. But he knows the answers if anybody does.
There is one myth about Lester in his high school days that I want to squelch at the outset. I don't know if it was perpetrated by Grail Marcus, Bob Christgau, or Lester himself, but it was totally 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 at the time. Not like Grossmont High School, perched on the rim overlooking El Cajon Valley, and referred to somewhat complacently by alums as "The Harvard of the foothills." El Cajon High was somewhat lower class, poorer, and drew it's students from a smaller pool. The Four H club was the biggest club on campus, and my Freshman algebra class was in the agricultural building and stunk of cow manure and the gas fumes of auto shop. But the school also had a drama department in a theater of it's own, separate and full of possibilities. Next door to it was the music building with an active band and orchestra, and we collaborated on musicals together, including Damn Yankees and Bye Bye Birdie. There was also a vibrant 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. We competed in district wide tournaments, participated by Lester, myself, Roger Anderson, Bill Swegles and a lot of other students. Some of the kids were extraordinarily intelligent, and if Lester felt isolated and alone then it was by his own interior neuroses, and not from a want of a huge gang of friends. My freshman advisor who was also the main drama teacher was named Keith Richard. He was the one who introduced me to Lester as someone who could help out in some plays for the drama department. We put on a lot of plays including the Glass Menagerie, Ten Little Indians, Teahouse of the August Moon, Diary of Anne Frank, and a lot 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 gun shot wound to his head.
We acted in scenes in K. Richard's classes that we wrote ourselves or cribbed from a couple of early Stan Frieberg and Lenny Bruce albums that Lester had gotten from somewhere. We gave that theater a lot of use. We also went out and caught the more highbrow foreign films at the Academy and Ken theaters; Fellini and Antonioni movies, Trudeau and Goddard, and Kurosawa and Satyaget Rey films, as well Peter Sellers comedies and the angry young Englishman flicks of Tony Richardson that they broadcast on late night TV on Friday nights. Lester's high school experience was hardly that of a cultural wasteland.
Lester stood out at once. He was funny and quick witted and many times would bring a class to a halt with a wisecrack or a joke. He could charm an entire room without trying. He had charisma, and everybody who came into contact with him noticed. He was extremely handsome then, with features that were well chiseled and striking. He had no interest in sports, and except for a few softball games at gym class, I can't remember ever seeing him engage in any feat of athletics. As a consequence, his body never developed any sort of 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 forties by Alistair Crowley, mystic poet and practitioner of the black arts, complete with photo of himself with a wild and otherworldly glint in his eyes. Les copied that look, and extrapolated the kind of look he envisioned for the dust jacket of his projected Great American Novel. That grimacing look eventually made the cover of his record album.
Lester loved stories of crazy weirdoes, like Crowley, Edgar Cayce, and Anton Levey, wacko cults like the Illuminati, and the Rosicrucians, and mad poets like Rimbaud and Baudelier, absurdist playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco, Sartre, Antonin Artaud and his 'Theatre of Cruelty.' Also novelists like Henry Millar, Jean Genet and 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 am probably the only highschool student in America to have had Hassan I Saba quoted to him in his yearbook.
Lester had this quality that was like a lightning rod, and serendipitous things kept happening to him. I remember on the last day of school in June of 1964, when the janitors were sweeping out the classrooms, Lester found in a trash can copies of "Journey to the End of the Night," by Celine, and "Journal of Albion Moonlight," by Kenneth Patchen. Who else would have such books at E1 Cajon High School, and who else more likely to retrieve such books from the trash than Lester? Such coincidences, of an almost Fortean significance, (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 E1 Cajon's version of Liverpool's Cavern Club, if you squinted your eyes real hard. We pooled our money and got a friend old enough to buy liquor to get jugs of wine for the Moose Hall where we cheered on garage bands from the neighborhood. In La Mesa there was a coffee house named "Land of Odin," that catered to high school students. Lester read his avant garde poetry there. Lester made a lot of 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 from The Beat Farmers, and Jack Butler from Private Domain. They both still live in the San Diego area, and played together in a band called Glory, which was featured at the cavernous Palace teen nightclub on Pacific Highway throughout the late 60’s and early 70’s.
From the start he always had the best, most outrageous records to listen to on a broken down stereo set. 1963 was the doldrums of rock and roll, and Lester instead listened to Mingus, Free jazz, and blues records, Mr. Lucky and Peter Gunn albums, gimmick albums, early folkie Bob Dylan albums, jugband albums. He had Sonny Rollins records, 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, and doo wop groups and Phil Specter’s Motown records.
I don't know where he got half of the albums that he had. He prowled all the bargain bins, thrift shops, used record stores, and he didn't always pay for them. In fact he was seriously into shoplifting, and I went along on a couple of looting expeditions until we got busted. Lester was let go, but I was holding, and got to spend a couple of hours in the E1 Cajon police station and a severe talking to by my parents.
I hope I won’t bore people with one more accounting of Boomer musical history, but 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 Nov 1963. The Beatles hit hard the following April, and the whole raucous 60's era was off and running, and Lester drank it all in.
The Beatles did a lot more than safe love songs for girls. They also did solid covers of some of the best black artists of all time and they were able musicians who had 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 whole music scene in England, and everything started happening at once. Before long the Stones overcame and outdistanced the Beatles in terms of lowdown bluesy rock and roll; and 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 all the outraged folkies at the time, and the controversy raged in the El Cajon high school newspaper.
His mom was away working all the time and since there was no authority figure to tell Lester what to do since he was 17, he did pretty much what he wanted. All day and night he'd stay in his room, reading or writing like mad, and music blaring so loud you could hear it from across the street. His room was funky in the extreme. A favored easy chair with ottoman that oftentimes served as a writing desk, and coffee table, and excretions of material piling up on both sides of it; books, albums, 45's, magazines, comics, cokes, food, ashtray for his cigarettes. The record player was right next to his seat and he'd sit there juggling stacks of albums for the perfect record to play next while simultaneously watching TV all hours of the day and night. There was no order to anything, and all his clothes and possessions were just piled randomly on the bed, on sagging cheap metal book cases, on the chairs and the floor in big heaps.
Music fought with literature for Lester's attention, as well as his girlfriend, Andrea Di Guglielmo, who he met in speech class, and fell hard for, pursuing her for the rest of his days at El Cajon High School.
He found the beats early on, with, in no particular order, Kerouac, Ginsburg, and especially William Burroughs. It wasn't long after I met Lester than he became obsessed with Burroughs. He even replayed the Dr. Benway surgical plunger scene from Naked Lunch on the stage of the El Cajon High School theater. Nobody else got the joke, or the allusion, except me or Roger Anderson.
Burroughs' influence on Lester was profound. In his search for interesting weirdoes, here he struck pay dirt. Burroughs was everything that appealed to Lester Bangs. He was beyond the pale in every way that you can imagine. A writer of the most extreme and obscene sorts of fantasies. An expatriate, who lived in the wild underworld in such places such as Paris, Mexico City, New Orleans, and Tangier, with excursions into South America in search of "Yage, The Final Fix." Burroughs had the kinds of adventures that made Lester drool.
After Lester became acquainted with William Burroughs, there was never again any communication between him and his mother. She was the symbol of the square world, a drudge and a bring down 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 kinda hard to emulate William Burroughs when you live in suburban E1 Cajon, and there was no way to score any of the good stuff. Lester had a copy of a Life Magazine special issue of Drugs, with pictures of each kind of category of drugs then commonly known. Everything from morphine ampoules, to marijuana lids, to 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 photographs and wanted nothing more than to get our hands on any of them for the experience. But, being young high school kids in the middle of nowheresville, neither one of us knew where we could score.
This impatience to gain the drug experience, I think, colored everything that came later. There might have been other cliques on campus that 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 up to Berkeley to visit my brother Terry, who was living in a wild beatnik pad on Telegraph Avenue, and took Dexedrine, and smoked Marijuana for the first time in my life. I also heard the first Rolling Stones album that day and got my first experience of being thoroughly loaded while listening to Mick Jagger singing "Can I get a Witness," from that album. Later that night, we went to an art theater to see Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin," and Leni Reifenstahl's "Olympia," while still stoned out of my gourd. When I got back to El Cajon, I reported on my adventures to Lester, who envied my experience.
This not being able to get our hands on any of the traditional drugs like smack, speed, marijuana, or even something as common as beer made Lester look around for substitutes. We tried lemon extract. We tried nutmeg. We tried morning-glory seeds. We tried Marizine seasickness pills, and went to see "The Carpetbaggers" at the El Cajon theater in l965 when Lester was a Junior in High School. Nightmarish in the extreme. Somewhere in his readings, Lester learned about cough syrup, and shoplifted a variety of bottles to guzzle, until he found Romilar, and a drug experience that he liked well enough to repeat over and over.
I tried Romilar just one time, after seeing how much Lester loved the stuff. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, and I never did it again. But Lester saw Romilar as the kind of conduit to altered consciousness that put him, at last, in the league of Aleister Crowley, and William Burroughs. Imagine a staggering drunk, but alert, nervous and itchy, and raving away for hours. He started writing down his Romilar adventures in long monologues that he wrote out first in long hand spiral notebooks, then typed on a light portable typewriter that he balanced on his knees in his easy chair, being too wasted to sit up at a desk. These monologues later grew into his projected first novel, his answer to "Junky," entitled "Drug Punk." I don't know if any of those spiral notebooks, or typewritten pages survive in any sort archives, but he labored long and hard and diligently to chronicle his Romilar experiences. He also kept notes, the "Drug Store Dope" chart of psychoactive patent medicines.
I found most of- these initial drug experiments harrowing enough to treat with extreme care and mostly stopped the more radical experiments in over the counter drugs. We had mutual friends (their names matter naught after so many years) who sniffed glue and went on benders of their own, and some of them got into real trouble early on.
I was given access to pot and Benzedrine in measured doses by my older brother during his visits to El Cajon, in Christmas in 65, and intermittently at other times. Terry had his own gang of buddies, old enough so that I couldn't really run with them as much as I wanted and share in their insane and legendary adventures. A tantalizing taste that I'd sometimes share with Lester when I scored. When I introduced Lester to Terry, it greatly expanded the scope of his friends and adventures.
One friend, Steve Brown, little brother of one of the girls in Drama department finally got himself into High School when Lester was a Senior. Steve Brown was younger than us, but so sharp and talented in music, and his wit that we called him Little Stevie Wonder. He had a remarkable talent for finding and scoring drugs, and Lester and I encouraged him way too much. Soon Stevie eclipsed us all, and started to hang with an even more hard core gang of druggies. By the time he finished High School, Steve Brown was a full grown user of heroin and multiples of other drugs, and died of an overdose in 1971. 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, which overlooks El Cajon and is capped with a majestic cross that can be seen from miles in all directions, served back in the late 60's as an open market for all kinds of drugs. By 1966 the great drug drought broke with a vengeance, and you could get just about anything you wanted for a reasonable price. Marijuana, LSD, white cross amphetamines, Ambars and Opetrols, and tuinals, peyote and magic mushrooms, and Dexedrine’s on occasion. But by that time Lester developed a liking for Romilar even when he had his choice of the other drugs.
He didn't do it as much while he was still in high school, but after he graduated in 1966 and was feeling like a free man for the first time, Lester started taking Romilar every chance he got.
He got ready for Grossmont College in the fall, majoring, I don't know, in English and Creative Writing, probably. He definitely made an impact, as he cultivated this image of Mr. Joe College Cool, in shades, and slacks and sport coat and Penney 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 something like a professional and a scholar, just as William Burroughs always wore a suit and tie.
He always carried stacks of textbooks for his college classes, paperback books, magazines, Marvel comic books, stroke mags like Playboy, Penthouse, underground magazines like the Oracle, the East Village Other, the Berkeley Barb, LA 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 Jr. College. My brother Terry finally moved back down 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, mine, Terry's, a constant stream of people converged at once. The Harmons were radical college professors, with a wild brace of sons in a rustic Mexican style house without furniture in the hills east of E1 Cajon. Lester moved into an abandoned meat locker dug out of the hillside on the property. Just a mattress, and his record player and light for reading and writing strung out from an extension cord stretched out from the main garage. The party went on all summer long. We played Sergeant Pepper, the Doors first album, Cream's first album, Procol Harum's first, album, the Velvet's 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 Pops festival, and a visit to Haight-Ashbury right at the flush tide of Hippydom. Lester always tested the forbearance of his friends, and Jim Harmon’s wife ran him off of the property with a large kitchen knife when she caught him stealing a plate of fried chicken she just finished cooking.
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 only at one pharmacy in the county. The cotton wick was so repellent and toxic that it was next to impossible to swallow, and we searched long and hard to find something that would help in getting it down. But 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, that would not only keep you wasted in the extreme, but flat out energized all day and night. Those wicks were so potent that bits and pieces of them still held their power to drop kick your ass into another time zone for months afterward, and they got stiff and soiled with lint from Lester's sport coat pocket. For months we'd slice a bit of wick off with a razor and swallow 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 true book length as it filled up spiral notebook after notebook. He juggled his college classes, shoe store job and Romilar/Wyamine inhalers benders throughout 1967, and beyond.
By the summer of 1968, Lester was squatting with some friends in one of a collection of derelict houses in El Cajon, sitting on railroad ties waiting to be trucked away. There was no plumbing, no water, electricity strung from a small house nearby, a real tobacco road ambiance, just off Broadway, and within spitting distance of the future police station. Bikers moved into some of the other derelict houses, and it became a whole other scene, complete with heavy drugs and probably other crimes. Lester wrote in excruciating detail of a biker chick who pulled train for a whole group of bikers and anyone else who wanted in. In reality, it was a brutal case of gang rape, and that girl was not a volunteer. Lester read the entire account of the rape to a Creative Writing class, and grossed everybody out to the point of disgracing himself in that class for the whole semester.
He moved back in with his mother in the apartment on 1st Ave. escaping the police crackdown on that biker haven within days. Living with mom did have it's 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, and was consciously beginning to put distance between myself and some of Lester's adventures. The rape story was related to me directly by Lester, so I am sure it happened.
The main album for that summer was "White Light White Heat," by the Velvet Underground. Maybe still the pre-eminent 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 Sergeant Pepper, and a two record extended set of Cream Live. Also the White Album by the Beatles, and the first Captain Beefhart album, even before Zappa championed him I believe.
It was a wild election year, and we followed it all intently. Neither Lester nor I were particularly political, treating it all like a another media extravaganza dolled 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 latenight dregs on the next Sunday night. Lester immediately tried to duplicate that feat, dragging two TVs into his room for the effort. 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 onto his shoe store job for a long time, and even continued classes. But his deliberately chaotic lifestyle was beginning to tell on him. While never one to adopt the plumage of the hippy regalia, he let his hair grow out long and greasy, and was beginning to look too seedy for a sales job. He didn't bathe often enough, and his clothes were all wrinkled and unlaundered.
He started filling out as well, putting on weight and becoming a hulking presence and the beginnings of a prominent beer gut, and he was still a year away from legal age.
My brother Terry got married about this time and discovered a beautiful Victorian house turned hippie pad in Banker’s Hill inhabited by college students and dopers. It was a seedy, but colorful establishment. Radical posters and Terry’s abstract paintings adorned the walls, some of which were painted purple. Found objects that were treated as art hung everywhere. An old trumpet dangled from a cavalry sword propped up on a book shelf, and a mummified mouse nestled in the lap of a plaster Buddha that sat on the mantel piece over the fireplace.
A managery of animals infested that house including snakes, reptiles, and hamsters. A dog named Peyote, a black cat named Stokely, and a hunchbacked spider monkey named Edgar, after Edgar Rice Burroughs. Edgar was an obstreperous beast who shrieked when anybody got near him and threw his turds through the bars of his cage.
The house had a Widow’s Walk platform on the roof, and at night we would smoke joints, and watch the city lights, the harbor and the flight paths of airliners as they landed at the airport.
That house was slated for demolition, but was championed by the artist Robert Miles Parker, who specialized in drawings of old buildings. He founded the SOHO society, (Save Our Heritage Organization) and got the house designated a genuine historical building. Eventually it was moved to Heritage Park, in Old Town, and was saved for posterity, even making the cover of the San Diego telephone book in 1999. Lester was at his most irresponsible and destructive when he visited there, leaving cigarette burns on a fine upright piano, and a deep ash 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 first became published in Rolling Stone.
When Rolling Stone first appeared I dismissed it as a teeny bopper magazine after a cursory glance over, but Lester immediately saw the potential, especially when he saw a classified ad in the magazine asking for record revues. When other writers were being given by-lines in revues of albums that Lester was buying or shoplifting anyway, it didn't take any encouragement for him to send his own revues to the magazine. I don't know how many revues he submitted until one got 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 don't think I've ever seen anybody seize the day quite the way Lester did. One moment he's lolling about, getting high in his favorite manner, working on his Drug Punk manuscript 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 and thought nothing of calling up honchos at Atlantic, Columbia, Electra, & Warner Bros. records demanding free copies of upcoming releases for revue purposes.
And boy did he score! Within a couple of months of his first published record revue, Lester had gotten himself on all the major record companies' press release lists, and started receiving the latest albums in the mail on a daily basis, along with all the marketing knickknacks that went with each 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 anywhere. By this time he had turned 21, and so there was no longer any problem with securing beer or wine or booze, and with his record revue money Lester started doing some serious drinking. Always being the perfect host with his buddies, you could count on at least a six pack of beer in the fridge, jugs of wine, or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s available, or Old Overholt rye whiskey when he wanted to save money. 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 who would buy the albums that he got free from the record companies he really got ambitious. Not content with just the rock and roll and blues albums that 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 revue, and I don't think he ever got turned down. He got records he had absolutely no interest in, save for their potential for recycling, and went, unopened from his mail box to the resale pile. Ever willing to share the wealth, he gave a lot of records away to all his friends. I got some choice records from Lester, as did Roger Anderson, who was a classically trained flutist and came to rock and roll relatively late. Everybody got records from Lester.
He was inspired as a freeloader, starting a pattern that continued right up to his death of plunging straight ahead, leaving other people to take care of the grubby details like paying for his adventures. He got backstage passes to see the Buddy Miles band play at the Whiskey A GoGo in LA. In a van driven by Steve Landis, a friend from high school, Lester, me, Roger Anderson, Gary Rachac and a girl friend of his all drove up to L.A. to take in the show. The van broke down in the streets of Hollywood, and we spent the night in a Chevron station just outside the famous Paramount Studios main gate after the show. There was nothing memorable about the show itself, but the drinks flowed freely and we paid for none of it. The next morning we had to split up and all of us hitch hiked our separate ways back to San Diego.
Not long after that we went back up to the Whiskey to catch a concert by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and Lester secured his first interview with Lou Reed. He became their biggest champion in the Rock press, at a time when too many people still thought of them as Andy Warhol's house band. Lester wrote piece after piece, extolling the Velvets at every chance he got.
It was the summer of 1969, a period in history when all hell broke loose. In the span of two months came the first Apollo Moon landing, the Mi Lai massacre in Vietnam, Ted Kennedy's epic fiasco at Chappaquidick, The Woodstock music festival in Bethel New York, and the Sharon Tate murders in Hollywood. Things were definitely getting out of hand. When Charlie Manson and his family became the main suspects in the Tate killings, things were never so cool for the Hippies ever again. Nixon was President by then, and there was a perceptible backlash to the countercultural types. Pure evil was walking in our midst and you couldn't deny it. Acts of senseless violence as the weathermen and the Days of Rage made it harder to keep solidarity with any kind of generational movement either politically or culturally. Even I had to admit that a large number of the long hairs that I'd met at rock concerts were buttheads at best. Whatever kind of cultural revolution we thought we were participating in during the Sixties, had obviously failed, and it was time to batten down the hatches.
I mention this because I remember reading Rolling Stone's profile of Manson on the way up to the Buddy Miles set. The atmosphere of the time was getting pretty gothic and lurid, as if somebody had tossed in a little henbane into the LSD punchbowl. It was if an era had just passed and we missed it. Even the acid that had made it's way down to E1 Cajon was stepped on and adulterated, and the San Francisco Renaissance was already history.
To Lester, however, it was all just grist for his writings. He started branching out to other publications, especially Creem magazine, a venue that would afford him considerably more scope than the space restrictions of Rolling Stone.
I remember one morning I stopped by Lester's place. There was music coming out of the window of his room, and the front 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 just awful. Bloodshot eyes, with black rings under them, disheveled clothes and long greasy hair, and the identifiable body odor of his that was becoming more prominent and harder to handle with each passing year.
He saw me, and grunted out a weak hello, then grinned an evil little smile. "I just now finished a thirty page record revue of '96 Tears,' by Question Mark and the Mysterians," he said.
The deed was done on Wyamine inhalers, and he had been up all night long on it, and insisted on reading the entire thing to me. It was the piece, 'Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung,' and it represented a kind of 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 revue form, and looked for ways to expand his material.
I admit I felt a little bit frustrated at this blaze of activity by Lester, and welcomed the news when he told me that Creem magazine was looking for more writers to revue records for them. I took up the challenge and started sending in revues of my own to Creem magazine, using records that Lester was getting mailed to him on a daily basis. It turned out to be an easy gig, and the editorial standards were pretty lax.
My revues were accepted immediately, and were published with no delay, starting with a revue of the first Black Sabbath album, and also the first album by Bob Marley and the Whalers. 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 complements of my life. I also got on some of the record companies' freebie list and my mail box became engorged with albums and promotional materials.
I once asked Lester what kind of music he would make if he had a group of his own, and he said that it would be a cross between the first Black Pearl album, and Captain Beefhart'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's 'Marble Index,' album and an obscure group from Denmark called The Savage Rose, headed by a nasty little honey named Anisette.
We all started contributing to the effort, and Lester was certainly not above lifting some of our better lines for his revues. If I, or Roger, of somebody else got off a good wisecrack or a joke, Lester would steal it in one of his next pieces for Creem or Rolling Stone.
In the summer of 1970, 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, and 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 with our tickets already secured, and we made our way straight to the airport lounge and the first of many gin and tonics. In fact, you might call that entire trip the Great Tanquery & 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 plane trip all the way up from San Diego, a ten minute flight.
Michael Ochs was renting at the time a small house a few blocks from the Lockheed Aerospace Facility in Burbank, hardly one of the glamorous neighborhoods in the L.A. area. He shared the house with Alan Mason, an executive for A & M records.
We had just enough time to set our gear down in the living room when Michael whisked us off to the auditorium at Century Plaza where we had our own table and drank complementary champagne and ate the finger foods provided by caterers. The show was glittering and star studded, hosted by Columbia president Clive Davis, who introduced short sets by Chicago, and Big Brother & the Holding Company, and the whole Columbia line up. I don't remember exactly 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 Blvd., and we meticulously made our way up the Strip. Our first stop was Atlantic Records, where 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 Richard set up in the corners. We got copies of the Stones album, and the first Allman Brothers Blues 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, sit in a plush office, entertain visiting yo-yos, field phone calls from groupies and hustlers for free concert tickets, and type 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 treated to free albums, T shirts, press kits, and a large dirigible shaped balloon to advertise the latest Led Zeppelin album; By the time we made it to United Artists records 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 definitely the place to be if you wanted to make it big. By the time we hooked up with Michael Ochs at his office on the third day of our visit, we had the jaded appetites of Hollywood insiders. Columbia Records was a gigantic operation that combined both administration and marketing departments with large recording studios, and was a beehive of activity. We met the group Crabby Appleton, who had released one successful album on Electra, 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, and ended up one night getting 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 it was catered with it's own bartender, who 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 to see the panoramic grid of LA below them. Lester got into an argument with some guy on the relative virtues of Ginger Baker's Airforce and Grand Funk Railroad. I scouted around the place and found the party within the party in a leather and mahogany paneled office where some 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 ended, and Michael Ochs got us in to see Cheech & Chong at the Troubadour, and more free drinks, this time shots of tequila, and later that night to catch the late show at the Whiskey for some group that I can't remember. Lester had scored a big interview that night, as we were invited to attend a recording session for Captain Beefhart at the Electra recording studios, scheduled at the ungodly hour of three a.m.
When we got to the Electra recording studio, the place was deserted, but decked out with all the comforts, including sauna, water bed, and an old Coke machine stocked with short Coors bottles for fifty cents each. By this time the liquor was getting to both of us and we pretty much crashed. When Captain Beefhart showed up, along with his guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo, we were both too wasted to do much justice to an interview, and Beefhart berated us for abusing our bodies like we obviously were. He himself was sipping from a bottle of Green Chartreuse (for his voice, he said), and I for one just decided the best thing to do was keep quiet and listen to the good Captain lay down a couple of tracks of vocals, while Zoot Horn Rollo played an amazingly complex blues riff that sounded to my ears like some Japanese kabuki music.
It was daylight when we left the studio, a smoggy doleful morning that showed just how ugly Hollywood can be when you are coming down off of a drunk. Our (or at least my) last day of the trip stayed mostly at Michael Och's house, where Lester noticed that I was dragging a little. He said he knew just what would perk me up, and drove over to a nearby liquor store where he bought a whole fifth of Tanqueray gin for me. But I had enough by that time, and just wanted to take my winnings and vamanos, because 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, and made some more contacts for magazine pieces.
There would be other trips. One could get used to hanging out in Hollywood, and we found out that 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 began traveling on my own, meeting up with Lester on the fly, as it were.
Marty Cerf was more than a music company executive. He was a genuine rock and roll historian, and in his office at United Artists he had one entire wall filled with a massive collection of vintage 45's going 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 revues for it, expanding my own 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, at the time a ratty assed little teenager, son of a Hollywood somebody who hung around the record companies and generally made a pest of himself. He latched onto Lester like a star struck groupie, and even came to visit Lester in his apartment back in E1 Cajon.
Danny Sugarman's main claim to fame was that he was a factotum for Jim Morrison of the Doors, and promised us complete sets of all the Doors albums, but he never came through for 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 wrote a biography of Jim Morrison called "Nobody Gets Out Of Here Alive."
The Rolling Stones didn't make the Woodstock festival. But they were determined to make up for that blank spot in their musical resume when they finished their mega US tour of the winter of 1969 with a free concert that they were going to host all on their little lonesome. Then the announcement came down that the Stones were going to have their very own multi humongous gathering of the tribes complete with a whole raft of hot opening acts, including The Airplane, the Dead, The Animals, all the San Francisco groups, and a lineup maybe even bigger than Woodstock itself.
It was a cool December night at Roger's house in E1 Cajon when they heard about it on TV or radio, and all of a sudden it was agreed that the thing to do was go up there and make the scene. I wasn't there that night, thank God, but Roger and Jim Bovee and Lester counted out their change, grabbed their cigarettes, six-packs, and whatever other drugs available, and piled into Roger’s car and drove up to a hazily defined destination point 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 totally into classical music, in a family of amateur musicians. Roger knew some of the most complex, sophisticated music in the classical repertoire and repeatedly used to harangue me, challenging me to turn away from that pop shit and learn something about real music. He kept after me to replay Bartok's 'Concerto For Orchestra' over and over until I "got" it, and a similar injunction for Varace's 'Arcana'. Roger knew his stuff about music 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 kind of convert, and the classics were discarded. The Rolling Stones were (was?) God. Roger slavered over the Stones, and the Velvets, and Led Zeppelin, the louder the better. Personality changes were happening a lot all around, as everybody got progressively twisted on drugs. Thinking back it is interesting how important the music question was to all of us, how it mixed with the dope and the sexual relationships and the politics, the very fabric of life.
Lester got himself invited to attend a Jazz record company convention for Impulse Records. He got up to the Japanese owned plush Miyako hotel in San Francisco where the convention was and gave me a call, when he just got into his room, and flopped on the bed with his first drink from room service. He invited me up with plane tickets courtesy of the record company. I got off the phone and hightailed it to the airport. It was a mad dash to San Francisco and I was missing out on precious freeloading party time. I ran like a mad dog to get to the hotel and when I finally got to Lester's suite there was a full room service buffet table laid out on white tablecloth with several giant shrimp cocktails, crab cakes, and large drinks of grog cocktails, navy grog highballs complete with little parasols and garnishes and all of it on his complementary expense account that was growing by the minute.
What was weird about it was that neither Lester nor I had any money on us, and all I had was a return ticket back to San Diego if I got stranded up there in the Bay Area. I don't know if Lester had even that. We partied with some bay area writers who were also there for the convention, including Ed Ward, Lillion Roxon, Greg Shaw, who wrote the Creem column Juke Box Jury as well as the fanzine "Who Put The Bomp," and met Paul Krassner at the freeform jazz concert where I heard John Klemmer doing his Coltrane imitation. We toured San Francisco, and drank lots of grog drinks and when the time came to check out and sign for the expense account, 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 Sausilito, and then stayed with Greg and Sandy Shaw, who had a place in Fairfax, a woodsy little berg in bucolic Marin County where we decompressed from all the partying in San Francisco. Lester left to go back to Hollywood, but I stayed another day before taking the bus to the airport and back to San Diego.
When I got home I found out that Lester had landed the day before, then got the invite to go to another Music function, and took off without me. I thought that 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 finally returned home, and the atmosphere between us was a little tense. When he got to his mother's place he started to carry his suitcase up the stairway to the apartment when it broke open and all of his clothes spilled out onto the sidewalk. The odor from all that dirty laundry was so repellent and nauseating that the clothes should have been incinerated instead.
Lester was getting into hot water with his friends. His Mom, and his girlfriend Andrea were both giving him grief over his personal habits, and his college career was a total washout. He had no job and no money coming in except record revues and sales of complementary record albums. He wanted to move to Hollywood permanently and hang out with the industry types that he patronized and abused with equal abandon both on the phone and in his writings for the rock press. It was ironic that this period was the time when his lack of personal hygiene was making it impossible for normal people to stay around him for any period of time.
Lester could feel the walls closing in on him, so he made his move and 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 all his cornball and gimmick albums in the first boxes to confound the staff of Creem, as to the kind of weirdo had they just hired.
With perfect timing, Lester left town virtually for good just about the time everybody who was around him was totally fed up with his behavior and his body odor. It was an ozone like effluvium that was his body's way of processing all the chemicals from Romilar and booze and speed that he kept consuming on a constant basis.
It was a good move for him, both professionally as a journalist of the pop scene, and for his own personal growth, as a writer, and as the public persona of "LESTER!" the literary icon that he was now consciously cultivating. For better, or worse, Lester was intent on making his reputation as a writer, and public personality a-la Kerouac, Mailer, or Burroughs.
He was also conscientious as an editor, and Creem magazine blossomed into a credible alternative to Rolling Stone. I remember when the jazz/rock band Chicago had released their fourth record, they came out with a massive boxed, four record sized album so pompous and grandiose that I joked to Lester that it needed four different critics to review each disk separately. He conferred with his editorial staff. A few days later he called me and said that they decided to have one critic review the shrink wrap, another to review the box, four different critics for the disks, and me to review the booklet inserted in the album. It was, I thought, the only proper response to such a weighty offering.
As for me, I went back to College and pursued other interests, but also took seriously my own growth as a Rock writer and critic. I contributed a number of pieces to Marty Cerf's Phonograph Record Magazine, as well as Creem, and some pieces for Rolling Stone. I went up 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 Maclaughlan, and a private performance for selected media people in Ike & Tina Turner's personal recording studio in Englewood, not far from LA International.
From Creem magazine came an assignment to do a profile of the top teenybopper act signed with Motown Records, Michael Jackson of the Jackson Five. A group I knew nothing of at the time because 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 of Gibson and Stromberg on Sunset Blvd. I was driven to the Jackson family compound in Incino, 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, and a chest of drawers, and not much else. I saw the main family living room, and the Jackson's practice studio, and caught glimpses of the old man, the girls in the family and the staff of domestics and others.
I wrote my article on Michael Jackson and submitted it to Creem magazine. But Dave Marsh rejected it, leaving me with no proof that I actually got an interview with the most reclusive of all the superstars in the whole pop firmament.
Lester returned once in a while after he had moved to Detroit, to see Andrea De Guglielmo, and his mom a few more times and 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 particular press party another gangling youth suddenly 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 very young, but very well connected, and I met him again when I went to the Sports Arena to get a backstage pass at the big Jethro Tull concert. I was met at the stage door by none other than Cameron, who had the last pass, and I was not let in.
Lester and I communicated by letters mostly by this time, and most of that concerning some of my pieces and record revues. I continued to work and send in revues for several months, but found myself being turned down for free passes, and some record companies cut me off of the freebie list, and I came to a realization in my life.
And that was, without Lester around, I didn't really care that much about the music scene. I didn't have the ambition to stay on the leading edge, and there were more groups forming and more material out there than I could keep up with. Besides, the whole entertainment scene was just 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 Christmas of 1973 with Andrea, who had an apartment in E1 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 before coming out here. He had put on so much weight that he looked positively obese. He had the flabbiest gut you ever saw, and sagging arm muscles, and if he looked just a little bit dissipated he covered it up nicely with hale fellow well met bluster and gab. The kitchen was well stocked with different kinds of liquor, liqueurs of several flavors, and the makings for a potent egg nog 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 pretty much dropped out of my life. The phone calls eventually stopped, as did the letters, and I only belatedly heard that he had left Creem, and moved to New York and started writing freelance for the Village Voice and other publications. When my subscription to Creem lapsed, and lost interest in anything published by 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 to me. I still heard of his adventures from third party sources, and bits of info from what Rock press I read in the ensuing years. The late Seventies passed and I went on to live a whole other life of which Lester was not a part.
I met him one last time when he came back 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 a definite effort to clean up his life. He didn't look too healthy, all the same. He did have the old talent of attracting attention to himself. He made the front page of The Daily Californian, E1 Cajon's own newspaper with a large local readership, in a big photograph of himself sitting on a bus bench with his characteristic pile of record albums, magazines, books and things, and reading a newspaper, big as life. The reason? The city of E1 Cajon had just installed brand new bus benches and the newspaper sent out a photographer who took a picture of the first person at hand to use the new benches. Typical Lester: rock critic, magazine editor, gonzo journalist, bus bench model. I asked him how he did it, how he'd be the one to get his face on the front page of the local paper for something as ephemeral as new bus benches. One of the last things he said to me was, "Whats a matter, you jealous?"
That question rang in my head for a long time after that, up to 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 his success. Over the years, however, I have observed that others did, and when he died, I wanted no part in 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 of their own to tend to, over what sort of legacy that Lester left. It would be just a matter of time that somebody in the media would take a shot at him.
That is why I wrote this account of Lester. A target as juicy as this would make a nice trophy for any of the media gunslingers who inhabit these woods. I shudder at the thought of the kinds of distortions that would come from sources of rumor or innuendo, or outright lies from people with bones to pick.
And lest anyone might think that I might 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 freely to flesh out a fuller portrait of him. I neither wish to trash Lester's personal or literary reputation, nor gild his legend with hyperbole and shaggy dog stories. It all happened pretty much as I said. And if Lester were here to read it, he would agree. I suppose people like Ed Ward, Grail Marcus, Richard Meltzer, Dave Marsh, John Mendelson, Jann Winner, Robert Christgau, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, or any number of other people who have known Lester over the years, would 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 Darvons, then he was into drugstore dope way too late in his life. 1982 is sixteen years later than 1966 and you'd think over the counter drugs wouldn't be so cool any more. 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 keep some distance between his public personae and his core beliefs?
I'm not even certain if Lester stayed true to the bald honesty that he proclaimed for himself. If he didn't cover up his own tracks or try to lay down a fog of myth so thick that nobody could discern the truth. I don't know what is printed on the coroner's report, but I always maintained that he died of old age at 33. At least his internal organs were old and used up and I was an accessory to his start down that road. As much as anything else, Lester's story is a cautionary tale about the abuse of drugs, just as you cannot separate the life stories of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Malcolm Lowery, or Raymond Chandler from their drinking habits.
Concerning the manuscript of 'Drug Punk,' I wonder if any of it exists any more. If John Morthland is Lester's literary executor (whatever that means) then he might have it, or parts of it, as I doubt if it was ever transferred into a single manuscript. It might be in the possession of one of the CREEM people, or it might be in New York, somewhere. I don't remember Lester as being the most meticulous of record keepers, and he made at least two major cross continental moves in his life, never the best thing for anybody's possessions. Also, once he got so thoroughly enmeshed in writing about the music business, he might have attached less importance to his earlier writings.
That would have been bad and short sighted of him if he did that, considering how assiduously he was working to construct his own media image. Maybe the drugs were addling his brain. Chemically induced psychosis rarely makes for well thought out career moves. What good is being a legendary wild man of letters without a body of work to sell to credulous college freshmen?
What is tragic about Lester's life story is that he had the talent to be one of the best writers in America, and he died just as he was about to settle down to do some serious work. As good as some of the pieces in 'Psychotic Reactions' are, they just give the faintest whiff of kind of talent that he possessed.
One more thought about 'Drug Punk:' I read sections of it when Lester shoved them into my hands. I found it funny in places, amateurish at 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 that Romilar was having on his mental state after a particularly long bender. He was with Andrea, his long suffering girlfriend, and totally 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 bye and bye.
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