Because he’s so closely identified with Creem magazine and Detroit on the one hand, and New York City and post-punk on the other, it’s easy to forget that Lester Bangs’s roots lie somewhere else entirely, in the small-ish (current population less than 100,000) town of El Cajon, CA, just outside of San Diego. Raul Sandelin’s feature-length documentary, A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs, addresses this oversight, and except for a few (unnecessary? I couldn’t decide) clips of Bangs waxing eloquent about the state of popular music from the offices of Creem during the mid-70s, the movie never really leaves El Cajon; it’s as much about the city as it is about the writer. Though in truth, maybe what the movie’s really about–in any event, the aspect of the movie that most connected with me–is friendship and community, and it’s quite moving to hear all of Bangs’s old pals speak of him today with such love and affection. Not, to be clear, with mawkish reverence–this isn’t (thank God) The Early Years of Saint Lester–though sometimes with bafflement, as with Jack Butler’s perfect recollection of the time Lester tried to turn him on to free jazz: “What the hell is this? It was totally out of my comfort zone, and it was really atonal and… ”
Raul Sandelin, also a native of El Cajon, produced, wrote, and directed A Box Full of Rocks. It’s his first feature-length documentary (his second–see below–will also be of interest to readers of this site), and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about it.
You can watch A Box Full of Rocks in its entirety here. Tell your friends.
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Is this your first movie? I know you’re a professor, but are you also a moviemaker, or just a Lester Bangs fan who decided to make a movie about the guy?
This is my first feature-length movie, yes, and my first documentary, in which I had to do research versus writing a script. But, I had done several short narratives before this. With that said, though, I want to emphasize a unique characteristic about El Cajon (Lester’s and my hometown). The people of El Cajon have two long-time traditions, a love of movies and a loves of records. Both records and movies are forms of recorded (versus live) entertainment. And, they reflect a time when El Cajon was an isolated town. It’s 15 miles east of San Diego, which was a long, windy, mountainous trek in the early 20th century. El Cajon has always been considered out in the middle of nowhere. So, El Cajonians were amassing large record collections before Lester Bangs raided the bargain bins at the Thrifty Drug Store. Likewise, El Cajonians were always going to the movies. We had a couple of large theaters and several drive ins.
Like Lester, I’m an El Cajon kid too. So, I grew up heavily influenced by both records and movies. Of course, Lester Bangs was a hometown legend. So, when I started making films, Lester was a natural subject. Also, I had already founded the Lester Bangs Archive at Grossmont College, Lester’s alma mater and where I now teach. The synergy dictated that this film had to be made.
What led you toward the subject of Lester Bangs? What is the particular appeal of Bangs for you?
Again, Lester and I are both El Cajon kids, both with a love of rock music and counter-culture. Lester was 15 years older than me. So, he was writing for Creem when I was 14 and reading Creem for the first time. I remember a friend’s older brother saying, “Read this article. The guy’s from El Cajon.” From that point on, I’ve always read Lester with El Cajon hometown pride.
You are currently a Professor at Grossmont–have you lived in El Cajon all your life? Was it always your intention to focus on his early, formative years?
Yeah, I’ve lived in El Cajon (and its sister city La Mesa) my whole life spotted with a few ventures out into the world. But, I strongly identify with El Cajon. And, I’d like to see these aspects of El Cajon history recorded for posterity and for the world to know.
Is it safe to say that Lester Bangs is the most famous person to come from El Cajon? What else is El Cajon known for?
Lester is definitely one of the most famous people to come out of El Cajon. But, there are others. Iron Butterfly (the band that invented Heavy Metal) came out of El Cajon. Frank Zappa lived here around age 14 and bought his first record player here. (Zappa bought his first Varese album in nearby La Mesa, the sister city mentioned before.) Songwriter Jack Tempchin, who wrote the Eagles “Peaceful Easy Feeling” amongst many other hits grew up just a few miles away, as did Tom Waits. All of these guys were living in or around El Cajon in the 1960s. So, Lester had company. Other than that, El Cajon is also known for its great motocross racers not to mention stock car champion Jimmy Johnson. A number of professional athletes as well as artists and actors came from here too.
How did you manage to connect with so many of his old friends?
A lot of Lester’s friends are still very much around the local scene. Jerry Raney, a Lester friend and founder of the Beat Farmers, performs every weekend right down the street from my house. Jack Butler, Gary Rachac, Milt Wyatt, Rob Houghton. All these guys live right here to this day.
Did you encounter any resistance to the subject from people you tracked down?
Well, we weren’t able to talk with Andrea “Andy” Di Guglielmo, Lester’s high school girlfriend. It wasn’t as much resistance as much as the door to her was closed long before we started our project. We were told that she had given her last interview about Lester years before and didn’t want to revisit that part of her youth anymore. So, we just left her alone. The same kind of thing happened with Ben Catching, Lester’s nephew and childhood companion. Through a mutual friend, he politely let us know that he had retired from the whole Lester Bangs thing.
Are all the interviews with his older friends conducted right in El Cajon?
Yes, usually at various schools and parks although we interviewed Gary Rachac at Gary’s childhood house on Herbert Street. Lester was a frequent guest there. So, we had a spiritual communion of sorts.
Jon Kanis provides voiceovers in the film. Tell me a little bit about how that came about–i.e., the decision to do voiceovers and working with Kanis.
A lot of documentaries now are avoiding the use of a voice-over or narrator. There’s something always stilted about a narrator, like in those old science films they showed in elementary school. So, I never felt completely comfortable with the scripts we were writing because I didn’t feel comfortable with the role of the narrator in the first place. But, nevertheless, I was prepared to have a narrator out of convention. Then, serendipitously, the guy who was going to do the voice-over bailed on the project. Suddenly, it all made sense: We wouldn’t have a conventional narrator. But, we still needed something. That’s where Jon Kanis came in. He has an extensive Creem collection and has read Lester out loud at public readings. So, it was natural that Jon would read Lester. We went through Lester’s writings, searching for all of the mentions of El Cajon (or San Diego). Then, we rearranged all of those citations in chronological order to conform to the timeline of the film.
Talk a bit about the nuts and bolts of the thing. Did you do all the interviews yourself? What about the filming and editing?
Much of the film was made as a student film under the auspices of the Media Comm department at Grossmont College, where I teach. I actually took a year-long class and made the film as a “student.” Other students in the class crewed on the interviews with me and helped with some initial editing. The English department at Grossmont found a couple of stipends to keep the wheels greased. Finally, Ed Turner, who owns an entertainment investment company called Road Ahead Productions, gave us several thousand dollars to finish the film. We used that money to hire a professional editor, Tony Butler, who happens to be the brother of Lester friend Jack Butler. Then, Tony and I sat for hours and days finishing it.
What was your biggest challenge getting this movie made?
Definitely, the financing. Film is an expensive medium and money seems to disappear into the smallest details. I remember looking at the clock dozens of times as hundreds of dollars just ticked away as we fixed some three-second transition or some illogical glitch in the video files. So, a 90-minute film needs a good budget needless to say. I’d recommend to anybody: Find your money first. It’s hard to get going, gain momentum, then, run out of money. Fortunately, Ed Turner and Road Ahead Productions financed my second film, The Rock Bards, which explores the broader history of rock journalism in the 60s and 70s. It’s not really a sequel to Lester’s film. But, there’s definitely an organic link between the two.
You’ve piqued my interest–what can you tell me about The Rock Bards? Is it a movie about the birth of rock criticism? Can you reveal who is, or might, be in it?
The Rock Bards is currently in production. The film covers the heyday of rock journalism and the rock magazines that nurtured the great rock writers like Lester Bangs. Basically, we are looking at the years 1966-81, from the founding of Crawdaddy magazine to MTV, which signaled the end of this era. We have interviewed several people already including Mike Stax, John Morthland, Billy Altman, and Ed Ward. Jaan Uhelszki, Susan Whitall, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Ben Fong-Torres, and Robert Duncan, are planned over the next two months. The documentary is being funded by Ed Turner’s Road Ahead Productions, an entertainment investment company. So, we actually have a decent budget. Rock Bards should be completed by the end of 2014. Then we plan to send it out on the festival and art house circuits before going to DVD and Netflix.