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Lester Bangs, singular rock critic hailed by R.E.M. and David Foster Wallace, to be saluted at La Mesa birthday bash

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 12/9/2018 By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Dec. 09--Born in Escondido and raised in El Cajon, Lester Bangs achieved acclaim and notoriety as one of America's most gifted, colorful and self-destructive rock music critics. His growing impact since dying in 1982 -- at the age of 33 -- will be celebrated at Friday's free "Lester Bangs' 70th Birthday Bash" at Hooleys Public House in La Mesa.

"Lester is kind of El Cajon's Edgar Allan Poe, a troubled soul, but a brilliant writer, who was loved internationally," said Grossmont College English professor Raul Sandelin, a longtime champion of Bangs' work. He wrote, produced and directed the 2013 film documentary "A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs."

Bangs' ascent to near-legendary status began with the 1986 publication of "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung," an anthology of his writing lovingly compiled by fellow music critic Greil Marcus. A second anthology, "Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader," followed in 2002.

He was immortalized in the lyrics to R.E.M's classic 1987 song, "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," in the line: Mountains sit in a line / Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs. Bangs was also name-checked in the 1981 Ramones' song "It's Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)."

In 1990, author David Foster Wallace (now deceased) dedicated his first co-written book, "Signifying Rappers," to Bangs. In 2000, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman memorably portrayed Bangs in San Diego director Cameron Crowe's Oscar-winning film, "Almost Famous." (Bangs had been a key mentor when the teen-aged Crowe was a fledgling rock critic here.)

The year 2000 also saw the publication of the definitive biography, "LET IT BLURT -- The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic," by veteran Chicago Sun times music critic Jim DeRogatis.

More recently, Bangs was the subject of New York Public Theatre's 2018 production "How to be a Rock Critic." It debuted here in 2015 in La Jolla Playhouse's annual DNA New Work Series.

"As a writer, Lester represents the generation that sort of collapsed and combined high and low culture," noted Sandelin, who in 2009 teamed with Grossmont College English professors Karl Sherlock and Sydney Brown to launch the Lester Bangs Archives and the annual Lester Bangs Memorial Readings.

"Lester could could talk about classical philosophy in one paragraph and then garage bands in the next. He made literature accessible to baby boomers and subsequent generations."

Bangs' 1982 death was apparently caused by an accidental overdose of the prescription painkiller Darvon. Had he lived, he would be celebrating his 70th birthday Friday. Sandelin hopes the Lester Bangs' Birthday Bash becomes an annual affair.

"I also hope El Cajon might do a little more to get behind Lester," he said.

Sandelin will speak briefly about Bangs before Friday's 9 p.m. event begins and again between sets by Thee Dark Ages. The El Cajon Valley High School-bred rock band featured some of Bangs' closest friends and he sometimes sat in with the group on harmonica.

Friday's all-ages event will feature a mostly acoustic reunion performance by two former key members of Thee Dark Ages -- Jerry Raney and Jack Butler. They later became local favorites together in the San Diego band Glory, after which Raney co-founded the Beat Farmers and Butler became a driving force in both the Bratz and Private Domain.

"Jack and I play together a lot, but this will be the first time we've appeared together as Thee Dark Ages since we were in high school," Raney said.

"We'll play songs Friday by The Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds. Lester was completely nuts about the Yardbirds."

Butler was Bangs' roommate when they both attended Grossmont College.

"Lester was definitely the smartest person I ever met. He'd hop up on stage with us and wail on harmonica on two Yardbirds' songs, then zoom out the door," recalled Butler, who performs Dec. 22 with Private Domain at Viejas Casino & Resort's new Lobby Bar and Dec. 28 with Raney at the Rancho San Diego Hooleys.

Asked about some of his favorite memories of Bangs, Raney cited two.

"Lester's mom kept their home really nice and clean, but his room was the most messed up I ever saw in my life!

"In high school, if you missed a day of gym, you lost 10 points and were supposed to make up for it by writing a 10-page report for Coach Foster, a page per point. Lester missed gym, a lot. Near the end of the school year, he walked up to me, and said: 'I got my make-up report all ready,' and it was like a damned book!"

Lester Bangs' 70th Birthday Bash

With: Jerry Raney and Jack Butler of Thee Dark Ages, plus special guest Evans Kontopuls

When: 9 p.m. Friday

Where: Hooleys Public House, 5500 Grossmont Center Drive, No. 277, La Mesa

Admission: Free

Phone: (619) 713-6900

Online: hooleys.com/

george.varga@sduniontribune.com

Twitter @georgevarga

___

(c)2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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