I’m not good with dates, but I believe it was the summer of 95′. My wife had recently took the kids and left my ass and I put all of my stuff into storage and went down to southern Mexico to chill out for a couple of months. When I came back I was basically homeless and as my friend, James Lloyd described it, “pickled.” James was a struggling actor (later became a producer) and invited me to move into an empty room in his apartment at the Chandler Apts. on Chandler Blvd. In Sherman Oaks. Also living there were actor, Julian Flynn, and musician, Lester Butler.
I was 32 years old at the time but hopelessly lost after the departure of my family and was looking for something to hang on to. This new home that I had moved into seemed to be it. We partied hard almost every night. We would read Yeats, Bukowski, and Carlos Castaneda aloud, anything that validated what we were doing. We would do humiliating acting exercises like the primal scream, etc., and have crazy jam sessions. Lester would play the harmonica, and I heard rumors that he was some kind of blues legend, but he didn’t act it. He never seemed to have an ego, in fact it was the reverse – Lester often seemed melancholy and shy, but at times was very funny and charming. He was highly intelligent and well read. James had a girl friend who was bar-tending at Fantasy Island, and Julian had a girlfriend and we would all get together and we called ourselves “the family,” and you know where that tends to go. Some of us were heading down a pretty dangerous path but we were clueless about it at the time.
I started to get the idea Lester was somebody big when I would look through his smudged and chicken scratched Rolodex that was sitting out on the coffee table. Names in that Rolodex included Mick Jagger, Bruce Willis, Rick Rubin, and many other blues and rock legends. James and Julian kept telling me, “Lester is the man. Lester is about to blow up, etc,” but I didn’t know it because I had never seen him play on stage. The first time I did was at Jack’s Sugar Shack which used to be on Hollywood and Vine. Lester came up with his band, 13, which included guitarists Kid Ramos and Alex Schultz, Andy Kaulkin on keyboard, and John Morgan on drums. Lester fronted the band and played Harmonica. I was blown away! Lester’s stage presence was intense to say the least. He was definitely channeling something. He had a whole different persona on stage and I could see him as the star that he was. Like I said, I was lost and looking for something to follow, and Lester became it. I started to dress differently, talk and walk differently, because I wanted to be as super-cool as Lester.
We would go to see Lester often at the Sugar Shack, and other now defunct clubs including Bar Deluxe in Hollywood and Cozy’s in the Valley. He would also play at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach and Cafe Boogaloo in Hermosa Beach. I saw him play the House of Blues one time and I remember bits of pieces of being in the green room there, but I was really wasted and I think Lester was irritated with me. Lester would go off on gigs to Europe where he was wildly popular and be gone for weeks. The rest of us “family” members were struggling to survive working as waiters or doing whatever we could.
At one point, Lester got arrested for possession of cocaine in Orange County and he went through a period of sobriety. He got serious for awhile and was running every day and body surfing at the barrel in Newport Beach and spending time with his sister and niece. He was gone from the apartment most of the time and stayed with his is girlfriend, Lori Peralta, at her pad. Shortly after that, Julian Flynn (disgusted with our constant partying) moved out of the Chandler Apts. into Beverly Hills to live with his girlfriend. The whole “family” thing played out before it got to Manson status. James and I were feuding with the apartment manager and some other crack heads in the apartment building, so things got a little tense. It was no longer a pleasant living situation at the Chandler Apts.
The last time I saw Lester he came over to the apartment and he wanted me to follow him up to a mechanic’s shop in Van Nuys so he could drop his van off to get some work done before going out on a cross country tour. As we were driving back to the apartment, Lester instructed me to pull over to a liquor store so he could buy some cigarettes. I stayed in the car and he went in. I was day dreaming and staring straight ahead and when I looked to my left – Lester was standing outside my window holding two packs of cigarettes with his arm completely extended. He looked like a zombie the way he was standing and staring and it startled me.
I rolled down the window and said, “Lester, what the fuck are you doing?”
“I got us some some smokes, man. One for you and one for me.” I laughed and took the cigarettes.
Shortly after that, Lester produced his second album, “Lester Butler and 13”. James and I got evicted from the Chandler Apts. and moved into a new place together. It was on Mother’s Day of 1998 that we got the news. Lester was gone. The night before he had been hanging out with some scumbag couple before one of his gigs at the Sugar Shack. They injected him with a hot dose of heroin, and when he passed out they shot him up four more times with cocaine trying to revive him. While his band played without him inside the sugar shack, unknown to them, Lester was laying dead or dying in his van behind the club. You can read more about that here.
Unfortunately, the words of Lester’s song, “Devil Woman,” became prophetic, “And I heard my mama crying, I heard my mama crying – she said sonny don’t die…”
You can still find Lester’s two albums online if you look hard, “King King,” with his band the
Red Devils was produced at the Hollywood Club, King King by producer Rick Rubin. “Lester Butler and 13,” was his final album, produced by Hightone Records.
In the next installment I will interview Big Pete of Holland, who followed Lester as a teenager, then later taught himself to play the harmonica and formed a Lester Butler Cover band. Big Pete has a new album out, “Choice Cuts” and it is a major accomplishment in the Blues world! Big Pete is blowing up in Europe like Lester did, and should be a household name in America.
Copyright 2011, Rob Neighbors