My fiancee and I recently visited the folklore site Watts Towers in Los Angeles, California. Watts is known nationally as the epicenter of the 1965 Los Angeles riots. What drew me in the direction of that off-ramp, however, is that I remembered that the Grateful Dead had visited Watts Towers during the 1966 Acid Tests. I wanted to witness the inspiring installation that took one man, an Italian immigrant named Sabato “Simon” Rodia, 33 years to build.
Watts Towers was not a scheduled stop for Meghan and I. We had planned on accompanying our friend to Disney Land but were politely asked to depart prior to stepping foot on Walt’s hallowed ground. (Apparently the hint of marijuana is frowned upon by Magic Kingdom security.) Driving the 405 back to LA (a route I’ve traveled hundreds of times), I noticed a small brown historic sign that signaled, “Watts Towers Next Exit.”
I knew that Watts Towers had been a source of inspiration for the Dead since seeing Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary “A Long Strange Trip”, but I couldn’t quite grasp just yet how the folk art of an Italian immigrant could inspire the music of America’s most historically significant touring band. I had also been struggling with a bit of writers-block and was hoping to draw some inspiration from Rodia’sTowers for myself.
To flashback just a bit, several days prior to our failed gate entry at Disney, Ronald Adelberg, a photographer and friend, emailed me asking if I might consider writing a piece for Grateful Music, LLC. “Grateful Music, LLC?” I thought to myself, “What the hell is that?”
Adelberg told me he had recently teamed up with Kevin Long. Long created Grateful Music over 15 years ago as a blog intending to meld the fan bases of Grateful Dead and Phish. Originally labeling the site “Phish and the Dead”, Long intended for fans to share stories and spread love for all jam based music. Long’s dream was short lived when lawyers representing Phish sent a cease and desist letter demanding the band’s name be removed from the site. Grateful Music. LLC was born.
Long built Grateful Music into a recognized online publication. Having written for Rolling Stone and Spin, Long realized that the bands he was interested in were not receiving the proper amount of attention. Grateful Music was an attempt to rectify that.
“OK, what do you need from me, Ron?” I asked. Grateful Music sounded like it had its teeth sunk in pretty deep. Why do they need some journalist to write a slant for an already thriving publication?
“Well,” Ron hesitated, “It was thriving.” He proceeded to tell me how Long had battled a history of addiction until one day the illness consumed him his world came crashing down around him. “Kevin is a good, good person,” Ron stated with the least bit of doubt. “But he lost his way for a while and is now back on track.”
Long had to abandon most of his endeavors during his struggle with addiction. He had expected Grateful Music to fade away like many of his so-called friends. In reality, the opposite occurred. While in recovery, Long discovered Grateful Music’s Facebook page had grown to over one hundred thousand followers.
Adelberg explained to me that Long and he were now revamping Grateful Music into a fully-archived database and news source that will encompass the entire jam band scene, thus fulfilling its creatorâs original vision. Ron said, “We are looking for a writer who can help elaborate what we are trying to do.”
“I’m in!” I told Adelberg, without fully comprehending what I was committing to. A problem for me was I hadn’t practiced journalism in several years. I am currently pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles while also trying to sell my pilot presentation of “Medicinally Approved,” a pot shop comedy. But, “Yeah!” I thought, “I’m a writer.”
Before I knew it Adelberg had me on the phone with author and publicist Dennis McNally, historian of The Grateful Dead, and longtime friend of Jerry Garcia.
Here I think I’m going to write some well-received Phish show reviews or something, and now I’m on the phone with Dennis fucking McNally thinking, “Jerry Garcia walked this guy’s wife down the aisle!?!” “OK, John, keep it together. You’re an actor, right? Just act like you’ve done this a million times.”
McNally and Long’s history goes back to the early stages of Grateful Music LLC. McNally always appreciated the format Long presented. “Kevin just has a way of cutting through the bullshit. No fluff”, McNally told me. “Now that he’s no longer sick, I know Kev’s the guy.”
Talking with McNally could not have gone more smoothly. He is like talking to your grandfather about the goddamned Grateful Dead. But just imagine if your grandfather spent 15 intimate years embedded with your favorite band.
McNally is a leading rock n roll journalist. McNally is best known for writing 2001’s “A Long Strange Tripâ. McNally also released in 2015 unedited interviews with Jerry Garcia titled “Jerry on Jerry”. McNally is one of the only journalists Garcia ever trusted. He made Jerry forget that the tape recorder was even rolling.
I tried to avoid total fan melt-down so I stuck to the topic at hand: Grateful Music. McNally had been helping curate Skull and Roses, the Grateful Dead tribute festival held at the legendary Ventura County Fairgrounds. Skull and Roses is in its third year and is being headlined by bassist Oteil Burbridge and his Dead inspired band Oteil & Friends. McNally wants to ensure Grateful Music wil be well represented.
“Anything you need,” McNally said, “Press pass, food, whatever interviews you want, you got it.”
“No going back now” I realized, “I’m a journalist.” Following a few obnoxious bragging sessions with fellow Deadhead (initiated with “Guess who I was just on the phone with…) I quickly realized, “SHIT! I need to write something!”
For days I was living the Phish lyric, “Gotta blank space where my mind should be.” Every time I put pencil to paper I would drift and start doodling. “Whelp,” I thought, “There go my chances of working with one of the last living legends from the original San Francisco scene.”
And then I stepped out of the car at Watts Towers. Meghan noticed I was shaking. There were no dancing bear or Stealie stickers on cars surrounding the community center. Regardless, I knew immediately I was standing on the very spot Jerry stood when he first gazed at Rodia’s 99ft tall masterpiece. Like Garcia I wasn’t prepared to appreciate the enduring force of Watts Towers. In McNally’s book “A Long Strange Trip” Garcia explains that he had zero interest in lasting fame. But all you see when you visit Rodia’s Towers is exactly that: a permanent, indestructible legacy of one man. Maybe Garcia saw an all too familiar future and hoped to reverse his own place in history by blurting out, “I never want the Grateful Dead to be this!”
When Garcia saw Watts for the first time he had no idea that he’d be the most recorded man in music history. “Jerry wanted to create art that was collective and impermanent,” McNally explained. “Music that would be played in real time and then vanish.” The underlying impact of Watts Towers on Garcia though is ultimately impossible for me to ignore. I recognized many similarities between his music and Rodia’s Towers. Garciaâs contributions to art (whether he wanted them to or not), scaled the highest heights yet remain rooted in our culture today.
Nothing can prepare you for the awe-inspiring sight of Simon Rodia’s Towers. Within the .25 acre property there are 17 interconnected towers adorned in a translucent green hue. From a distance the tallest of the structures could be mistaken as an electrical tower. Drawing closer, we realized that the iridescent green was created from cementing thousands of vintage 7up bottles along the walls (many of the labels still visible.)
Meghan and I were bombarded by colors and patterns that are formed from rummaged tile and old dinnerware. Upon entry, the cavernous structure seems to extend endlessly into the sky. One can see how Rodia’s skills grew from year to year as the mosaics become more intricate.Each layer signifies years of dedication. Imagining Rodia placing each piece of tile helped me envision the countless hours Garcia meticulously spent practicing Nicolas Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patternsâ. In Rodia’s towers, Garcia witnessed what mind and body can accomplish through a lifetime of dedication. If 710 Ashbury is ground zero for the band and a concrete space that all Deadheads must visit at least once, then Watts Towers is like Mecca, a spiritual destination worthy of pilgrimage.
Looking back I like to imagine Simon Rodia was taking on the persona of that asshole security guard that denied our entry into Downtown Disney. Or maybe Jerry Garcia himself inspired me to cut off several lanes of traffic to take that off- ramp on the 405. Whatever it was my writers block had vanished and I suddenly knew what I needed to expound on while staring in wonder at Watts Towers.
Everything started to click. I realized Grateful Music is simply an expansion of the original ideas that inspired both Jerry Garcia and Simon Rodia. Grateful Music encompasses every type of musical influence that shapes the current jam band scene. Garcia learned that The Grateful Dead could play any song from any style; be it traditional, blues or even pop. This based on Rodia’s use of any piece of rubbish he could find: 7Up bottles, etched china dishes, even old rebar from construction debris contributed to his indestructible towers.
The similarities kept piling up. The comparisons were all too similar. Walking through the community center next to Watts Towers I learned Rodia had divorced at age 31 and was separated from his children. He has been quoted as saying, “I was one of the bad men in the United States. I was drunk all the time, always drinking.” I couldn’t help but think of Long’s struggle with his own demons as well as those Garcia faced throughout his entire career.
What struck me most was that all three men: Rodia, Garcia, and Long built foundations that have been battle tested and still stand today. Long left Grateful Music for years only to find the fans kept it alive. The Grateful Dead, defying conventional wisdom, gave their music away for free and survived for more than 30 years. They now have more tribute acts playing their music than both The Beatles and Elvis combined. But the coolest survival story belongs to Simon Rodia’s Towers.
When Rodia suffered a stroke after working for 33 years on his towers, he gave the property away…for free. (Sound familiar?) Soon after Rodia’s departure, the city condemned the towers and even tried to tear them down. City engineers attached chains to trucks to tear the towers down but only the trucks’ transmissions gave way as Rodia’s masterpiece was left unscathed.
I could keep going but I think you get the point. Would the Grateful Dead, as we know it, exist today without having visited Watts Towers? Would other bands like The Allman Brothers, Phish and JRAD exist without the influence of the Grateful Dead? And if none of those bands ever existed would Kevin Long have instead created some site inspired by Duran Duran? I think the biggest question we are left with is, “Without Watts Towers would I have ever written this article?”
Thankfully these questions need no reply. Stay classy San Diego. -John Holloway
Thanks Colin. John Holloway did a fantastic job. Thank you for reading.
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