Tag Archives: Long Beach

Tacos, Tequila, and Spider Bites. Cezar & Justin Tour Diary 2019.

3 Jan
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Korean Friendship Bell, San Pedro. Photo by Andrew Zappin

Tacos, Tequila, and Spider Bites.

Cezar & Justin Tour Diary 2019.

I first met Cezar Mora about ten years ago in Long Beach, California. We had a mutual Canadian friend, Vancouver artist and musician Justin Gradin. This creative Canuck introduced us.  Justin Gradin would eat a California Burrito (carne asada with french fries) from Burrito King in Echo Park daily, but that’s beside the point. 

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Burrito King, Echo Park.

Cezar told me that we could make a lot of money playing low rider car shows as a Beach Boys cover band singing in Spanish. We called ourselves Los Long Beach Boys and attempted our first song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” in Spanish.  The translation was difficult, the rhymes were difficult, we were both frustrated.  After a couple sessions of attempting to kick off Los Long Beach Boys, we scrapped the idea and formed a band that played original songs instead.  We called ourselves LA Drugz because our drummer James Carman said that the best music is like a drug. 
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LA Drugz outside of Harold’s Place, San Pedro. Photo by Emilio Venegas, Jr.

There was already a band called LA Drugs from Boston, so we called our selves LA Drugz with a Z. It was partially a tribute to The Plugz, and also LA Guns.   LA Drugz recorded some fantastic material, released a 12″ EP and a digital EP and toured the west coast of America, but we were ultimately short lived.  We reformed to tour from Texas to San Francisco with England’s Fat White Family, and that tour ended with our tour van being broken into, all of Fat White’s equipment, suitcases, and guitars stolen, and those guys basically left in windy freezing cold San Francisco all wearing their only item of clothing which were matching LA Drugz T-shirts.
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Fat White Family on the first date of their UK tour, the only clothing not stolen out of their suitcases in SF being their matching LA Drugz T-shirts. Photo by Polly Braithwaite.

When  I was a teenager, my Dad had a friend from Morro Bay, California named Fran.  He was belligerent and a drunk and he would frequently get into fistfights with surfers on the beach. He would only date black women, citing his preference for their shapely asses.  Fran loved blues and country music and when I told him I liked it too, he would tape me this radio show from one of his local stations.   The cassette tapes that would arrive weekly in the mail would have stuff on them like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Lefty Frizzell.   To me, blues and country were just as honest as punk rock.  Country music was American rural storytelling, songs about all night drunks, failed marriages, lost jobs, broken hearts. It was a truly adult form of music as opposed to a teenage type of music like rock and roll or punk rock.  I didn’t truly understand it until I was divorced in my early 30s.
I played in touring punk rock bands from 1998 til 2018.   In my mind I wanted to play punk rock when I was young and country music when I was old.  A few years ago I went to the White Horse in Austin, Texas and saw young guys with long hair and feathers in their hats playing real country music. I thought, “Jesus, if these guys can do it, then I can too.” What am I waiting for?  It turned out these long haired guys were Croy and The Boys, Croy being a roommate of my old friend Mark Janchar of Hovercraft Records. Small world.
When I my relationship of 8 years ended in divorce, country music was one of the few things that helped me through it. All of these singers had felt my pain too. They drank to cope just like I did.  They made mistakes just like I did.  They fucked up and hit rock bottom just like I did. They got back up on their feet just like I did.
In Los Angeles I found a small but thriving country scene at venues like The Echo, Harvard and Stone, and The Escondite.   At Cowboy Country in Long Beach I saw a great young pedal steel player named Kevin Milner. I got his contact information.  I asked Cezar Mora if he wanted to play in a country band with me.  He was one of my only friends I knew who loved both punk rock and traditional country music.  We both really dig the Bakersfield sound, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and classic stuff like Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Eddie Noack, Willie, Waylon, Loretta, George Jones, you know, the good stuff.
Angela Ramos from San Pedro surf band Bombon agreed to play bass, and Luis Herrera (from Rough Kids, Sonny Vincent, and many more) on drums. We called ourselves The Wayward Chapel, released a live album, and played 3 shows.  Our debut on 4th of July we rode in on the back of my neighbor Francisco’s flatbed tow truck. It was truly epic.  Then Angela had a baby, Cezar started a plumbing business called Camco Rooter, and I started freelance ASL Interpreting full time.  We stopped playing.
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The Wayward Chapel’s First show on top of my neighbor Francisco “Tow Life”s flatbed tow truck. 4th of July 2016

My little brother Jamie recently moved to Dallas, Texas and there was a loose plan for my family to visit him there for Christmas.  I thought about going on tour solo, playing some acoustic shows on the way to help pay for gas.  My second thought was to recruit Cezar Mora on 2nd guitar, harmonies, and some lead vocals of his own and we could do a stripped down country set of originals and covers. To my surprise. Lord Cezar Mora agreed to join me on this Los Angeles to Dallas journey.  In the end I had a lot of trouble syncing up dates with Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Marfa venues, so the tour was booked as far as Tucson, Arizona, and Cezar would fly back from there. I’d drive the remaining 952 miles myself.  This is our tale.
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Friday Dec. 13th Los Angeles, CA @ Fais Do Do
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A few hours before our LA show our promoter Ryan Platero got in touch to tell us that Fais Do Do had cancelled the show because they had no PA System.  He scrambled and was able to move the show to the Grand Star Jazz Club in Chinatown.  The other bands and DJs scrambled and posted on social media, texting people, frantically spreading the word about the last minute change of location.
Cezar and I donned our hats and boots and arrived a little early, schlepping our stuff up the flight of stairs.  Little did we know, the downstairs bar at the Grand Star had a techno party downstairs. The blaring techno was drowning out the opening act Blanca, but as she was versatile, she was able to stomp her feet and adjust the tempo of her songs so that it matched the tempo of the throbbing kickdrum below.   Cezar and I were up next and it was the first show we had ever played as a two piece.  The techno totally drowned us out and I felt like I had to scream over it.  Some folks in the crowd started talking and between the techno and their talking, it was all I could hear. I couldn’t hear myself, couldn’t hear my guitar amp, couldn’t hear Cezar, couldn’t hear our vocals.  It was extremely difficult to get through.  We played a cover of “Dead Flowers” and that’s when I got into my punk rock mindset.
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My inner voice started chiding me,
                       “Man, what if this is the last show you ever play? How do you wanna go                                   out?
                         You gonna give up?”
Luckily Ryan our promoter told us we only had time for a couple left.  Ending that set was like ending torture trying to play over the techno downstairs.
Before we ended our set I said, “I don’t condone violence, but in this case I will make an exception. Will someone please go downstairs and shoot the DJ multiple times?”
I don’t condone violence but I did wish death on whoever was torturing our existence with bad house music.  It was Friday The 13th after all. Did we pass the test? Who knows. We survived relatively unscathed.  People seemed to love our Cactus t-shirts designed by Matthew “Snake” Davisand screen printed by Kid Kevin Carle at Calimucho Screenprinting and we sold a few.
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Saturday Dec 14th Long Beach, CA @ 4th Street Vine
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Our friend Jim Ritson owns 4th Street Vine in Long Beach and a couple other bars too. God bless him. Our good friend Paul Gonzalez had recently had his car stolen in front of the place while he was working. His records, turntables, and DJ Mixer was inside his car. It was devastating for him as DJing is his 2nd job and one of his loves.  Long Beach rallied and raised a few thousand bucks for him on GoFundMe.  God Bless Paul.
Cezar and Paul were drinking across the street at The Social.  Cezar had his black Stetson Revenger on.  He looked killer.
We had a couple drinks and then headed over to 4th Street Vine as we were on first. People seemed to really listen to our tunes.  It was nice to not have to try and play over throbbing techno.  Our set felt good, pure, the way the songs were meant to be heard.
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Sunday Dec 15th Tijuana, BC @ Casa De Vilma
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I picked up Lord Cezar at 10am at his pad in San Pedro and he wasn’t there. He had parked his van at his Aunt’s place in North Long Beach (down the street from Snoop Dogg’s parents’ house).  So far the communication on this two man tour was off to an excellent start.
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Made the 20 minute detour to North Long Beach, found Lord Cezar and his van the Green Goblin.  Made the tetris pack into the back seat of my 2013 Honda Civic and we were off!
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The drive to Tijuana was relatively painless.  That stretch of 5 freeway near the San Onofre power plant and the view of the great Pacific Ocean is so beautiful.  We stopped in San Isidro, the last US stop before Mexico to buy Mexican Car Insurance, the one thing that I forgot to do.  Typically your US car insurance provider won’t cover you for accidents down in Mexico.  We had our guitars and combo amps with us and I asked my insurance people about theft.  Geico told me that I had to buy renter’s insurance to be covered for theft, but everything in both my apartment and my car would be covered.  I thought it was a good deal, and remembering our good friend Paul in Long Beach and his recent theft of all of his DJ Gear out of his car, I went ahead and bit the bullet, buying renter’s insurance.  Now that our car and gear were fully insured, we said fuck it and crossed into Mexico!
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Our friends Marco and Gabriela’s pad is over in Playas Tijuana, and to get there, you cross the border and make a hard right which leads you through this windy, hilly freeway which parallels the massive border fence to the right.  This fence is rusty corrugated steel and is about the height of 20 Honda Civics.  In between the initial Mexican border fence is the death strip, and then the US border fence.  You can see US Border trucks driving back and forth just on the US side of the fence.  The huge fence leads all the way into the Mexican side of the Pacific Ocean which ends up right at Playas Tijuana.
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In Playas the fence has these murals painted onto it. They’ve made it into a kind of park.  I like it that they’ve done that.  Turned this ugly steel fence into something a bit more pleasant.  From Playas Tijuana you can literally see the skyline of San Diego in the distance.  The border is such a farce, man. It’s literally for show.  People who cross the border daily have family on both sides.  It’s people’s aunts, uncles, grandparents, neices, nephews who are crossing to visit and stay with family on the other side.  Gabriela, who lives with Marco in Playas Tijuana is studying to be a Veterinary Technician.  She crosses almost daily to study in San Diego.  Marco is studying to be an educational administrator and nearly has his Master’s Degree from one of the many excellent universities in Tijuana.
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Our host Marco’s face after I convince him to try a little taste of Gran Centenario Plata

We found our host’s house and I cut my finger open on their sliding gate door. My friend Cezar told me that I was going to get tetanus or lock jaw and have to sing the rest of the tour through my teeth with my jaw stuck shut.  Nice guy, isn’t he?
We met the doggie, Vilma who their house is named after.  Marco was preparing a carne asada BBQ in their back yard.  Playas Tijuana is mellow and pleasant and a nice breeze blows off the ocean.  It was time for Cezar and I to get in our hats and boots before people started arriving the party.  But first things first, we bought a bottle of Tequila Gran Centenario, Plata from the corner store nearby and enjoyed a tragito with our hosts.
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Damian Fry aka Profeta de Ajo (“Prophet of Garlic”) opened up the show with some beautiful tunes from South America.  He had an assortment of different instruments and he played and sang beautifully.
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Damian Fry aka Profeta de Ajo.       Photo by @isabeology (IG)

Up next were Los Rattlesnakes, Tijuana punk scene veterans who recently started an acoustic side project.  The dudes later told me that they had called the band Los Rattlesnakes because of the theme of rattlesnakes in the Ritchie Valens biopic film “La Bamba”, which is also a favorite of ours.  My old friend Sulli and I got Ritchie Valens tattoos on a trip to TJ awhile back and I told them the story about it. They were stoked.

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Los Rattlesnakes

Your pals Cezar and Justin were up next, and the room full of TJ punk rockers surprisingly dug our set of traditional country western music.

 

Our set was followed by a lively afterparty and we managed this group shot before things got too rowdy!  Gracias a Marco y Gabriela and all of our new friends!  Saludos Amiguitos!!
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Monday Dec. 16th El Centro, CA @ Strangers Bar
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Our poor host Marco had to jet off to work at 6am for a 7am start at the school he’s working in.  I loaded the Honda Civic as Cezar had disappeared off somewhere.  Poor Cezar slept on the couch with no blankets.  Someone finally draped some blankets over him.  I had the guest room where their roommate had just moved out and repainted the room. At first I was alright, but halfway through the night the paint fumes got kinda overwhelming and I opened the window and let some cool Playas De Tijuana aire in.
First things first, breakfast.  I remembered a place where Gabi and Marco had taken Irwing and myself on an earlier visit.  We found the place.
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El Heisenbergo aka Lord Cezar has his breakfast

After much deliberation I ordered the crab omelette.  Cezar ordered chilaquiles with machaca.   I had a freshly squeezed orange juice that was cold and mildly sweet. Goddamn, it may have been the best orange juice I ever had.  The Crab Omelette was absolutely fantastic.  They had this dangerously picoso salsa roja, and I put too much on my little crab omelette tacos I made with my side of frijoles.  I was worried I might pay the price later.  It wouldn’t be until Phoenix, but oh a price I would pay.
Our hosts in TJ mentioned that the drive to Mexicali might be dangerous. My personal experience driving in Mexico is to take the toll roads and drive during the daytime.  That was the advice given to Clorox Girls during our Mexican tour in 2006, and this advice has served me well.  Lord Cezar had some misgivings, but we decided “fuck it.”
We took the toll road past Tijuana, past Tecate, and into the rolling rocky hills before Mexicali. The drive was beautiful.   I caught some shots of El Heisenbergo in his natural habitat.
Here’s what I wrote when I initially posted the photos.
Cezar and Justin made a succesful camino TJ a Mexicali y estamos en El Centro. The rock formations on the way to Mexicali were amazing. My shots of El Heisenbergo y las pinches piedras are here. The border is just for show, Los Mexicanos are our brothers and sisters. California was Native American, Spain, Mexico, THEN the US. We share history, food, culture, music, literature, art. It was our pleasure to share our music with our hermanos en Baja California. El Centro tonight with The Mellow Dicks from Mexicali at Strangers Bar. If you live here, come!
After a gorgeous drive and less than $6 in tolls, we finally hit Mexicali where we enjoyed some tacos.  There’s something special about flour tortillas in the desert: stretchy, buttery, sanguine. I don’t think I’ll ever think of flour tortillas in the same way again.  Viva Tortillas De Harina!
Our friend Ernie Quintero roadied for Clorox Girls during our Mexican tour in 2006 and he shot and edited this video.
Ernie is now a father and owns 2 businesses in El Centro, one being Strangers Bar. He told us that a Monday would be perfect, and said he’d donate all of his tips to us. What a good dude.

Ernesto had some pizza from his partner business Strangers West, and they put charcoal in the pizza dough making it dark and chewy.  Definitely interesting, definitely good!

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Charcoal pizza crust from Strangers West, El Centro.

Mellowdicks from Mexicali were a little nervous to play acoustic as this was their first attempt at doing so. They pulled it off!

Mexicali was where that stretch of the railroad came to an end, so there’s loads of Chinese Restaurants with Mexican ingredients.  There’s also loads of lovely frauliens who are half Chinese half Mexican.  A few beautiful frauliens were surprisingly at the bar in El Centro on a Monday night.  As our set ended many of them left as we imagined they had work in the morning on Tuesday. It also could have been because where we were playing blocked the bathroom.   Ernesto booked us a cheap hotel in El Centro where we were able to rest our heads after enjoying some pizza and beer at Strangers. Gracias, Ernie!

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Tuesday Dec. 17th Tempe, AZ @ Yucca Tap Room

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In the morning in our cheap hotel room, Cezar realized he had been attacked by spiders in the night. He had these insane spider bites all up his left and right arm.  I was spared from the spider attack.  Upon closer inspection we confirmed that they weren’t fleas, not bed bugs, not mosquitoes, definitely spider bites. Holy shit.  Poor guy was itching and scratching until we finally got him some cortizone in Tempe.

In the morning in El Centro, we had to hit a drugstore for a stomach malady I had. Old men on tour. (Don’t know why we didn’t buy cortizone here?)   Cezar made me a bet that they wouldn’t have a Nerf football in the drug store. I found a fucking football in there but Cezar claimed it wasn’t Nerf brand, so he didn’t have to pay up. Classic Cezar.

Homeopathic stomach malady video here

As we got into western Arizona, we waxed poetic on the marvels of the Saguaro Cactus.  It never fails. It takes them hundreds of years to grow and they live forever. God bless the Saguaro Cactus.

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Tuesday in Tempe was pretty quiet other than me dying a slow death in the Yucca Tap Room men’s room.

After my death, I had to get in the right head space to play – which required tequila and a couple beers.   Sound was fantastic and it was amazing to hear ourselves through monitors. It may have been the first venue with actual working stage monitors.   Thank Allah for stage monitors!

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Our pal and promoter Harry Jerkface opened the show with his own tunes.

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Michele Lane played next and unfortunately didn’t snap any photos. Her best tune was her ballad “I love you, Bob Cantu.”  Was good to see Bob there, our old pal from Redwood Bar in Downtown LA.

After our set which felt great, Cezar and I saw two girls making eyes at us and whispering in each other’s ears, but I talked too long to the sound man about his funk band and they left.  Yes, I blew it. And no, Cezar would not let me forget about it.

We burned a little midnight oil with Bob, Michele, Harry and DeMonica.   DeMonica told us a bit about growing up White Mountain Apache and we tried learning some Apache phrases . 

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Cezar’s arms were looking pretty bad from the spider bites and DeMonica found some cortizone for him.  She also suggested slicing open the bites with a razorblade and letting the poison drain out.  We vetoed this idea.

In the morning Harry made us one of his Hawaiian classics, Spam and Eggs.  I never had spam before, but it was kind of like a sausage.

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Harry’s Spam and eggs were even more beautiful than this photo as he had a side of spinach and mushrooms.  Great stuff.

I had to bite back the hair of the dog that bit me. I bit hard.  This is called burning the midday oil.

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Wed. Dec 18th Tucson, AZ @ Sky Bar

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The drive from Tempe to Tucson was relatively painless at about 2 hours.  We hit up Tacos Apson in Tucson which was just fantastic.

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Again, it’s those desert tortillas de harina that are just absolutely wonderful. We would have a couple of sonora dogs later on.   For those of you who don’t know about the Sonoran Hot Dog that originated in Hermosillo, Sonora, they typically have pinto beans, tomatoes, green salsa, jalapeño, mustard, mayonnaise, avocado and cotija cheese. Want one yet?

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Down at Sky Bar we found out that it was open mic night and there were about a million dudes with acoustic guitars waiting to play.  Cezar spotted a woman with a marionette who was also on deck to play.  Cezar then spouted forth the best quote of tour:

“Fuck, now we have to play with a fuckin’ puppet show? What the fuck, man?”

Our buddy Issac Reyes from Lenguas Largas showed up with Matty from The Resonars (“Gone Is The Road” might be the best song of 2019) and our opening band The Gem Show.  Apparently our show was separate from the open mic, thankfully.   We had to fortify ourselves with some Tito’s and soda water in our tour van, the 2013 Honda Civic.

It was down to the 30s in Tucson, folks told us it was the coldest day of the year.  We met a girl from Ireland who had one of those Gaelic names that are very difficult for us doltish Americans to remember or pronounce and her friend, Jenny Calento, who had black hair with bangs and a lovely smile.  Jesus, this black haired bang thing really does me in.

We played our set followed by The Gem Show who were loud and excellent.

Sky Bar paid us very fairly and Gem Show even kindly donated their pay to us. God bless you guys.  Ben Asher from legendary Bainbridge Island punk group The Captives showed up, it had been at least 20 years since I’d seen him.  We didn’t get to chat too much. Sorry about that, Ben.

Afterwards we went to another bar with a couple of Lenguas Largas, Gaelic fraulien, and Jenny Calento.   They were playing modernish country pop which Lenguas and Gaelic did not enjoy.  Gaelic fraulien was friends with the bartender and asked me what traditional country music she should try to turn her onto.  I told her to go with the classics like Hank Williams. I also noticed some Dwight Yoakam in her playlist so told her to keep it up with the Dwight Yoakam, and noted that some of Dwight’s favorite singers were Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and George Jones.  Thought that was a good introduction to more traditional country music and the Bakersfield sound!

It was a birthday party at this little bar in Tucson and “Dirty Old Town” by the Pogues came on. The whole bar sang it.  What a fitting end to tour.

Me and Cezar’s tour playlist top 2 hits were probably “Beer Drinkin’ Blues” by Eddie Noack and “A Million Miles From Nowhere” by Dwight Yoakam.

Give unto God what is God’s and give unto Lord Cezar what is Cezar’s.

After burning some serious midnight oil with Matty Resonar and him introducing us to the excellent Mike Judge animated series “Tales From The Tour Bus” (absolutely hilarious, you gotta watch it),  I dropped Cezar at the Tucson airport and drove 526 miles to Pecos, Texas.  The next day drove 421 miles to Irving, Texas to my little brother’s place.  Had a family Christmas without much fighting or controversy which was a success!

Then drove 354 miles to Amarillo, Texas, and the next day 608 miles to Flagstaff.  A couple of days later did 256 miles Flagstaff to Tucson.  Then a couple of days later 485 miles from Tucson  to Los Angeles.  Those are some serious miles!

In Flagstaff I hit a snowstorm but was able to visit with some old friends Alex and Oakley and their 2 dogs.  Check the snow out!

My wildest night was in Amarillo, but I won’t bore you with it here!  Thanks for reading!

Happy New Year!

xo

Justin

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Sam Rodia’s Watts Towers

1 Oct
Sabato "Sam" Rodia, creator of Watts Towers

Sabato “Sam” Rodia, creator of Watts Towers

“I was going to do something big, and I did…You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered.”

Sabato “Sam” Rodia, 1952

On a sunny Sunday afternoon I convinced my girlfriend to head down to South Central L.A. with me to check out Watts Towers. Growing up in a gang-rife Los Angeles of the 1980s and early 90s where Crips and Bloods reigned supreme, children were taught to be afraid of South L.A.  South Central was especially dangerous and anywhere south of the 10 Freeway was to be avoided at all costs.  In the films and television of the 80s and 90s, “Don’t go south of the 10 (Freeway),” was a common repeated phrase.

Watts riots, South Central Los Angeles, 1965. Over 100 square blocks torched.

Watts riots, South Central Los Angeles, 1965. Over 100 square blocks torched.

Riot Torn Watts, 1965. Photo by Harold Filan/Associated Press

Riot torn Watts, 1965. Photo by Harold Filan/Associated Press

Fortunately we disregarded the advice of my childhood and decided to pay a visit to Sabato “Sam” Rodia’s Watt’s Towers, a one-man 30 year creation spanning from 1921 to 1954.  Visiting the towers really touched me. I wanted to get a feel for the human heart behind this intense labor of love.

Photo By Marina Plentl

Photo By Marina Plentl

Photo By Marina Plentl

Underside of the main Tower. Photo By Marina Plentl

Coincidentally the Watts Jazz Festival was in full swing on the Sunday afternoon when we made the trip down to South Central Los Angeles.  Watts has a history of defiance, notably the Watts Riots of 1965, the L.A. Riots of 1992, and in a historically defiant work of outsider art, Watts Towers. The Towers have stood the test of time, a veritable fist in the sky against naysayers, vandals and multiple city demolition attempts.

Charles Mingus, 1976, Watts' finest Jazzman

Charles Mingus, 1976, Watts’ finest Jazzman

On the Watts Jazz Festival’s stage a charismatic M.C. declared into the mike, “Don’t let the city officials fool you. We put this together ourselves without their help. We raised the money. We put this together for the people of Watts without help or assistance from the City of Los Angeles.”  The attitude of the M.C. seemed directly reflective of Rodia and his Towers.  Rodia worked alone and completed his masterpiece without the help or money of outsiders. It was his personal gift to South Central Los Angeles and the world.

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Although the Towers and the surrounding park are on the map, as far as city officials are concerned, the people of South Central L.A. are a low priority, off the radar of city government. South LA residents’ marginalization in the past led to drug addiction, gang violence, riots and turmoil. The mostly middle-aged black attendees of the Watts Jazz Festival have survived living in a place that at times resembled a war zone. They continue to have a sense of quiet yet defiant pride. The Watts festival attendees seem to prove that holding your head high and holding your culture close is one of the only ways to overcome decades of adversity. What better way to show this sentiment then throwing a free Jazz Festival in the park, run by the people for the people.  This idea seemed to go back to the Wattstax Festival of 1972 where admission was $1. They kept the admission cost low so that everyone who suffered the Watts riots 7 years earlier could afford to partake in the festivities.

Simon “Sam” Rodia was an Italian immigrant who began his new life in Pennsylvania in 1895.  When his brother died in a coal mining accident, he moved west, living in Seattle and Oakland, where he and his wife had 3 children. A tiny man, at 4’11”, he worked with his hands as a tiler, logger and construction worker as well as finding work in railroad camps and rock quarries. Many of the skills he learned in his varied manual labor occupations would later facilitate the creation of his masterpiece.

When he divorced his wife around 1909, he left his family in Oakland, moving south to Long Beach. After a few years of living and working (including relationships with 2 women), he heard about a reasonably priced small plot of land for sale in Watts. At the time, Watts was not a desirable location to live because of its proximity to both rail road tracks and the light rail tracks for the Red Car, a street car which connected downtown Los Angeles with Long Beach.  The street car and the railroad produced quite a bit of noise which made the nearby lot a difficult sell.

Rodia’s romantic relations with a woman named Benita dissolved and in 1921 he decided to buy the triangular plot located at 1761-1765 107th Street in South Los Angeles. He built a small house for himself on one side of the lot and feverishly began construction on his vision of 3 towers on the other. In the 20s he lived with a woman named Carmen. After she left him in 1927, he would remain alone for the rest of his life, dedicated to creating something great.

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Rodia’s heroes were highly regarded Italians like Galileo, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus and Michelangelo. He admired the Leaning Tower of Pisa and other noteworthy Italian architecture. He was determined to create something that matched the accomplishments of his idols. It was also rumored that he drank heavily after leaving his wife, and he felt the need of a monumental project to avoid a plunge into heavy drinking.  Rodia came up with an idea to create a giant sculpture resembling one of Marco Polo’s ships.

He built his Towers using a mixture of concrete, steel and wire mesh. He would bend steel using the nearby railroad tracks to anchor a makeshift vise. His basic masonry tools and his bare hands were his instruments to build. He decorated his towers and the walls surrounding the Towers with his neighbors’ discarded trash: glass bottles, broken kitchen platters, ceramic pottery and seashells from the beach 20 miles away. He constructed a stone oven where he baked bread as well as melted ceramic and glass items for decoration and construction of the Towers. His sense of humor is seen in his offbeat touches including a cement cowboy booted foot and teapot spouts jutting out of walls.

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Rodia would also pay neighborhood kids in cookies or pennies for pieces of broken pottery and kitchenware.  He was known to the children as the “3 Musketeers Man,” because at the time, a full-sized 3 Musketeers chocolate bar cost a nickel. If the kids brought him enough ceramic pieces, he would sometimes reward them with a nickel.

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Rodia worked full time in a ceramics factory, the Malibu Tile Company in Santa Monica, and would collect ideal pieces to decorate his massive sculpture. He was fired from Malibu Tile when they discovered he was stealing such a large amount of supplies. He quickly lined up other work in the area in tiling, as a security guard and as a telephone line repairman. He diligently attended work full time and remained obsessed with his project during every free moment day or night for 30 years.

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To make his commute to work quicker, he placed a circular police siren on top of his car. After successfully navigating South L.A.’s streets in an imposter squad car, someone reported him.  The police came to investigate and he told the officers that he had never owned a car.  The rumor was that he buried his car to avoid prosecution.  It remained a rumor until it was confirmed in the 1990s, when the shell of a car was found buried behind one of his walls.

Despite his popularity with certain neighborhood children, he was often mocked by locals, dismissing his project as crazy or an eyesore.

Shrugging off the frequent ridicule, Rodia remained focused.

“Some of the people they say what is he doing? Some of the people were thinkin’ I was crazy, and some other people they say he’s gonna do something.”

– Sam Rodia

He would frequently walk the entirety of the railroad tracks from Watts to the rail road depot in Wilmington (about 15 miles one way), to collect broken bottles and other useful items on the side of the tracks. He used bottles of popular beverages such as 7-Up for green glass and Milk of Magnesia for blue glass.

His name was misspelled in a 1937 LA Times article calling him “Simon Rodilla.” History would correct his last name (Rodia), but unfortunately his incorrect first name (Simon) remained. He went by the nickname “Sam,” although his Italian given name was Sabato.

As Rodia’s project reached new monumental heights (his tallest Tower 99 1/2 feet tall) he ordained himself a minister and began orchestrating weddings, baptisms and other religious ceremonies in front of his towers. His ceremony had an unmarried couple entering the compound from one divided door frame and leaving simultaneously through one door. The ceremonies he performed were not recognized by the church or the State of California, but he drummed up a steady flow of marriages and baptisms nonetheless. On Sundays he would give sermons from a podium to any who would listen. Rodia built two fountains that spurted water. As the overflow of liquid seeped into his designs imprinted on the ground, it gave them an otherworldly feel.

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According to our tour guide at Watts Towers, Rodia worked with his hands so frequently that his fingerprints were completely rubbed off. He bathed once a month in rubbing alcohol to get all of the building material off of his skin.  He used a window washer’s belt and harness to climb the towers, and in his old age fell off one of the Towers in the 50s, breaking one of his hips. He remained committed and finished his project which he compared to “Marco Polo’s ship.”

"Nuestro Pueblo" inscription, photo by Sarah Janet

“Nuestro Pueblo” inscription, photo by Sarah Janet

On the side of the main tower is inscribed “Nuestro Pueblo” – “Our Town” in Spanish. He was fluent in Spanish and his Mexican neighbors thought that he was of Latino origin. He attended Italo-American society meetings in downtown Los Angeles so he managed to retain his Italian identity. It is curious that he named his creation “Nuestro Pueblo,” in Spanish instead of Italian. The Italian would have been “Nostra Città.” Simon Rodia was illiterate, dropping out of school at the age of 12 when he began working, so perhaps he became more accustomed to Spanish after his 50 years in the states or maybe he knew that more locals were familiar with Spanish. Perhaps it was a nod to the region’s Latino history or the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument on Olvera Street, the most historic street in downtown Los Angeles.

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When completed, within the walls of Rodia’s Towers are 17 structures including 3 towers, a baptismal font, fountains and the four walls that surround the Towers. A city ordinance forbade a building taller than 100 feet so his tallest tower is 99 1/2 feet tall. The inner and outer walls as well as the ground are covered in Rodia’s personalized imprints – using a garden hose faucet to depict flowers, the metal backings of chairs and headboards to create intricate imprints and also hand-placed sea shells, glass bottles and tiles. Heart designs also feature prominently. When asked about the significance of the hearts, he replied, “You know.”

During WWII, in step with Japanese internment and widespread anxiety and paranoia, it was rumored that his creation was a clandestine radio tower used to communicate with the enemy.

After 31 years of labor, in 1948 his Towers were complete, ornately decorated and solid.  Allegedly he frequently bickered with his neighbors, and some of the locals would even vandalize his project.

Finishing his masterpiece well into his 70s, he decided to relocate to Martinez, California (near his former home of Oakland) to be closer to his family. In 1954, he gave the plot of land to a neighbor, Luis Sauceda, and left his beloved Towers forever. One year later Sauceda sold the land to Joseph Montoya who wanted to convert the property into a taco stand that prominently featured the Towers, but this project never came to fruition.

Photo by Marina Plentl

Photo by Marina Plentl

In 1959 the Towers were condemned and slated for demolition, deemed “hazardous” by the City of Los Angeles. A few art advocates spearheaded by William and Carol Cartwright and Nicolas King, managed to raise $3000 to purchase the Towers.  They orchestrated engineers to conduct a safety test. A crane was attached by rope to the main tower. It was decided that if the tower fell, then the Towers were unsafe. If the tower was left to withstand the intense force of the crane, then it would stay.  Rodia’s Towers past the strength test with flying colors as the wheels from the crane were lifted off of the ground and the rope eventually broken with no damage to the tower besides a slight lean.  His tower was jokingly dubbed, “The leaning tower of Watts.”

Sam Rodia happily conducted a few interviews with journalists and filmmakers about his Towers as they began to attract international attention in the 50s.

“I was going to do something big, and I did…You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered.”

– Sabato “Sam” Rodia, 1952

Rodia attended a conference about the towers at UC Berkeley in 1961 and appeared satisfied about finally receiving some recognition although he never visited his Towers again after leaving Watts in 1954. Sabato “Sam” Rodia died July 16, 1965 about one month before the Watts Riots violently erupted.

Demonstrators push against a police car after rioting erupted in a crowd of 1,500 in the Los Angeles area of Watts.  14,000 national guardsmen were called in to disperse the rioting and over 100 square blocks were destroyed by arson.

Demonstrators push against a police car after rioting erupted in a crowd of 1,500 in the Los Angeles area of Watts. 14,000 national guardsmen were called in to disperse the rioting and over 100 square blocks were destroyed by arson over a 6-7 day period in August of 1965.

Two years later, a photo of  Rodia was included on the iconic album cover of the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in ’67  (Rodia is on the top row, far right, to the immediate left of Bob Dylan). Jann Haworth, the co-designer of the album cover was a native Angeleno, she included Simon Rodia as one of her personal contributions to the inspirational or historic figures included in the artwork.

Simon Rodia's face is on the top row, far right, to the immediate left of Bob Dylan

Simon Rodia’s face is on the top row, far right, to the immediate left of Bob Dylan

Since the towers were proven safe, in 1975 the City of Los Angeles and the State of California took over the maintenance and conservation of the towers and they became a public heritage site. The immediate surrounding area became a park and arts center.

“Through the sheer force of the creative intelligence they manifest, the towers uplift the Watts community. They serve as an urban oasis…”

– American National Biography, A.N.B.

Photo by Marina Plentl

Photo by Marina Plentl

I thought about Simon Rodia and how his tenacity, character and personality reminded me of the way Italian-American writer John Fante, also an L.A. writer, described his own father, Nicola “Nick” Fante in his books.  His father was a brick layer, often out of work during long winter months in Colorado. He drank plenty of “Dago Red” wine and was very proud at his intermittent accomplishments, constructing many prominent buildings in the Denver area. Many of Nicola Fante’s schools and churches still stand today in Northern California and Colorado.

In Dan Fante’s memoir about his family “Fante,” he recounts a tale of his Grandpa Nick in a bar fight with two Irishmen after they humiliated him. He smashed a bottle over one of the Irishmen’s head and bit the ear off another. He couldn’t handle being slighted or humiliated.

John Fante, Italian-American author and screenwriter. His father was a stubborn stonemason - Nicola Fante, and his son Dan Fante, another iconic Los Angeles writer - also ferociously stubborn, it runs in the family...

John Fante, Italian-American author and screenwriter. His father was a stubborn stonemason – Nicola Fante, and his son Dan Fante, another iconic Los Angeles writer – also incredibly stubborn, it runs in the family…

In John Fante’s book, “Full of Life,” he writes about his ferociously stubborn Italian father, who moves in with his son’s family in Los Angeles to help renovate their house when it became infested with termites.

“I felt his hot tears and the loneliness of man and the sweetness of all men and the aching haunting beauty of the living” 

– John Fante, Full of Life

The ornery tenacity of Italian-American laborers like Nicola Fante and Sam Rodia has disappeared from today’s milk toast American society.  Sam Rodia’s Watts Towers still stand, now respected but only after years of being considered the work of a crazy recluse. Rodia put up with the humiliation of being considered a laughingstock but remained ferociously dedicated to his art.  After he was forsaken from his family, Rodia had a singular focus, building something he would be remembered for.  In the still struggling South Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, his Towers remain a testament. They reveal the resilience of the human condition. They show that a neighborhood can survive racism, poverty, police brutality and riots.  They show that a simple man can create, even a man with a broken heart.

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