Updated: Oct 5
When I first landed in Los Angeles to pursue a career in Hollywood, the first attraction I would take friends visiting from out of town to see was not the Hollywood sign. Nor was it Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Walk of Fame or Disneyland. Because while all those attractions were appealing in their own right, visiting them would have to wait until I'd taken my visitor, sometimes directly from the airport, to the Watts Towers of Simone (Sabato) Rodia.
These soaring examples of outsider art fascinated me, and to the extent that everything in my new city seemed unfamiliar and vaguely threatening, the Towers, which many have observed resemble a three-masted ship, represented a familiar port and a safe harbor. Part of this was because Rodia had immigrated from Italy. I had been raised for a good part of my life there, and while it had been some years since I'd left, I still felt the tug of my (adoptive) mother country, whether by strands of spaghetti, the latest film by the Taviani brothers or the seemingly endless chatter and sense of community that would embrace me whenever I ventured into the the hub-bub of daily Roman life.
In addition to this nostalgia, which in Italian can be translated into 'homesickness,' there was the utter lunacy of Rodia himself. I felt I understood and even identified with what he was doing. He built the Towers by hand with rebar and cement, decorating them with the discarded gewgaws and pieces of ceramic he'd find along the train tracks. Some of these, it is rumored, were brought to him by little Charlie Mingus, who lived nearby. And why was Rodia doing this? I think he was declaring his existence, his place in the city and on the planet, drawing on both the sacred and the profane — the wooden towers dedicated to saints that villagers would parade through the streets of his hometown in Southern Italy, as well as the high-tension electric towers, radio transmitters and flashing billboards that stretch out across South Los Angeles still today. Rodia's decades-long determination, as well as his emotive use of found objects, was an inspiration, and the Watts Towers has remained a touchstone for me during my almost 40 years in Los Angeles. They are also possibly the single most important influence on Plant the Vine.