When artist Stephanie Montgomery told the police that she was raped at work, neither they nor her manager helped, so she sought justice her way.
Driving down the Sunset Strip has always felt a little like being in a magazine. The billboards loom and beckon, towering and untouchable and yet still totally in your face. Today they advertise luxury brands and new TV shows, but once upon a time—back when the Sunset Strip was at the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll—they were hand painted musical monoliths, larger-than-life variations on album art and psychedelic interpretations of soon-to-be hit records. As Hunter Oatman-Stanford put it, “in the 1970s, you knew you’d made it big if your record label paid for a hand-painted billboard on the Strip.” The hand painted rock billboards on the Strip were an art form specific to LA’s car culture, intended not for gallery walls but to be seen through a windshield at cruising speed, and preferably with the convertible top down.
According to the Los Angeles Times, each billboard took roughly ten days to produce, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $10,000. Craftsmen would hand paint the illustrations on individual wood panels at warehouses in Mid City, before ultimately reassembling the pieces on location in the wee hours. And they were by nature ephemeral—each was destroyed after its contract ended.
Luckily for us, a photographer named Robert Landau documented many of the billboards during their roughly decade-and-a-half heyday (from 1967 to the advent of MTV in the early 1980’s). Landau was a teenager living with his dad in the hills above the legendary Sunset Strip Tower Records when he first started documenting the fleeting masterpieces, shooting with a Nikkormat camera and Kodachrome film. A few years ago, he published a complete catalog of his photos with Angel City Press, and in a few weeks the billboards will finally grace museum walls, when an exhibit of Landau’s work opens at the LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.
Over at Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford has interviewed Landau about his work and the billboards themselves. Below is a short excerpt:
Collectors Weekly: Who started the music industry’s billboard trend?
Landau: As far as I can tell, it was the Doors in 1967 for their debut album. I talked with Jac Holzman—the head of Elektra Records who signed the Doors—while writing my book. In 1967, he had just come out here from the East Coast and opened an office on La Cienega Boulevard, not far from Sunset Boulevard, and it occurred to him that billboards were being used for everything except promoting records and music. A lot of radio stations where popular disc jockeys worked were farther east on Sunset, and he knew they drove on the Strip, and that the entertainment industry in general was based there.
The Doors were really into it; the whole band even climbed up on top for a photo shoot. Jim Morrison was quoted as saying he thought it was cool he’d be hanging over the Strip like a specter. I think at that time, it cost about a thousand dollars a month, which was quite a bit of an investment then. Elektra signed on for a year, and they had several different billboards. Little by little, the other record companies caught on.
How Clive Davis and Arista won the battle to sign Whitney Houston—then went searching for songs for her debut:
“Two years later, Griffith got a call from a friend. Had he ever heard of Whitney Houston? She asked him. He remembered her name immediately from the show he’d seen and said so. ‘You better move fast,’ she cautioned. ‘She’s negotiating with Elektra for a deal.’ The news shook him up. ‘I said, “Uh-oh – I better check this out,”‘ he recalls. As it turned out, Houston was performing that very weekend at another New York club, Seventh Avenue South. Griffith called Houston’s manager, Gene Harvey, and had his name put on the guest list.
“‘So I went down, and I was completely floored,’ Griffith says now. ‘She was mesmerizing. I couldn’t believe she had grown so much in that two-year period. She went from a teenager to a woman. She had a mature look, her voice was more mature, she had obvious star quality. It took no genius to see it – all you had to do was just see her and you knew. I’ll never forget, she sang the song “Tomorrow” from [the musical] Annie, and it was a showstopper. After I got up off the floor, I just knew that I had to bring her to the label.'”
On our June 7, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Essays Editor Sari Botton, Contributing Editor Aaron Gilbreath, and Senior Editor Kelly Stout share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.
This week, the editors discuss stories in The Cut, The New Yorker, and The California Sunday Magazine.
0:53 Before, and After, the Jogger (Sarah Weinman, June 3, 2019, The Cut)
“It’s so important to push through your discomfort and watch these things and read these stories. It’s important for us to have episodes like this where we’re paying attention to heavy stories about other people’s difficulties that we don’t have.” —Sari Botton
The Cut revisits the story of The Central Park Five with a look at the experiences of the nine women who were raped, assaulted, and one, murdered, by Matias Reyes. Reyes only admitted to the crime years after Manhattan District Attorney Linda Fairstein had, in 1989, charged five innocent young boys with the crimes.
The team discusses the complicity of Fairstein, the police, and the press in vilifying the wrong people, and the way that the womens’ stories, central to everything, were never properly told. They also talk about Ava Duvernet’s When They See Us Netflix series and how it humanizes the boys from a similarly overdue angle. They address the responsibility we have to engage with tough stories, and how a story like this, about racism and misogyny, has reach far beyond New York City.
9:57 R. Kelly and the Damage Done. (Jim DeRogatis, June 3, 2019, The New Yorker)
“To read these two pieces side by side disturbed me further, because on the one hand, you have somebody who’s being falsely accused of rape, and on the other hand, you have somebody saying I was raped, and not being believed.” —Kelly Stout
The editors respond to Jim DeRogatis’s memoir of reporting on R. Kelly’s alleged victims, as well as his acknowledgement of his failures, prejudices, and the perspective that he lacked as a white member of the press.
The team discusses the blind spots of whiteness, and how white people fail to see what is directly in front of us when it comes to realities non-white communities have long dealt with. Additionally, they look at how in this particular case, information about R. Kelly’s actions was available for years and ignored by reporters. They also address the way members of privileged communities create scapegoats to recalibrate a sense of security after horrible incidents, including hanging on to the idea that the justice system provides protection more than it exacerbates harm.
25:28 The Billboard (Kathy Dobie, May 30, 2019, The California Sunday Magazine)
“Shorthand isn’t enough… victims don’t get the privilege of shorthand.” —Aaron Gilbreath
Artist Stephanie Montgomery was working in a club in Los Angeles, dancing and trying to get her career started, when one of the customers raped her. She told management and the police, but no one did anything. This is a story about the aftermath of that rape, and how Montgomery went on to tell her story by painting a billboard on the I-10 Freeway.
The team continues their conversation about the shortcomings of law enforcement and the media, as well as the meaning and weight of the word victim. They touch on the importance of permitting people who have suffered a trauma to forge their own path to healing. They reiterate the need for details and going beyond shorthand terms like ‘sexual assault’ in these stories. Readers may not want to read or hear these details, but they need to learn them if anything is going to change.
* * *
Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.
Casey Rae | William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll | University of Texas Press | June 2019 | 28 minutes (4,637 words)
Naked Lunch is inseparable from its author William S. Burroughs, which tends to happen with certain major works. The book may be the only Burroughs title many literature buffs can name. In terms of name recognition, Naked Lunch is a bit like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which also arrived in 1959. Radical for its time, Kind of Blue now sounds quaint, though it is undeniably a masterwork.
Burroughs wrote the bulk of his famous novel Naked Lunch in Tangier, Morocco between 1954 and 1957. During those years, Burroughs was strung out and unhappy, living off of his parents’ allowance and getting deeper and deeper into addiction. He had friends but rarely saw them, preferring to spend days at a time staring at his shoes while ensorcelled in a narcotic haze.
Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | June 2019 | 45 minutes (7,644 words)
Recently a friend told me, “When I was a newbie at Vibe magazine, I always thought, Mike looks like what I always imagined a real writer looked like, with your trenchcoat and briefcase and papers … and your hats. I can’t forget the hats.” Though he did forget the Mikli glasses and wingtips, I had to confess my style was one I’d visualized years before when I was a Harlem boy hanging out in the Hamilton Grange Library on 145th Street, looking at Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin book jacket pictures.
Psychedelic and punk rock pioneer Roky Erickson has died. He was 71. Erickson sang about gods and monsters and kept the energetic simplicity of rock ‘n’ roll alive. Once, when asked where his melodies came from, he said that “the very best ones are sent from heaven by Buddy Holly. The rest take the better part of an afternoon to rip off.” His shriek was ferocious enough to make Janis Joplin briefly consider joining his band.
Roky, pronounced “Rocky,” was born Roger Kynard Erickson Jr. on July 15, 1947. His family soon moved from Dallas to Austin, Texas. Erickson’s cultural diet consisted of comic books and the Beatles, and by 1965 he was busking on the streets near the University of Texas. He grew his hair and started getting high, and either dropped out or was kicked out — depending on who you talk to — of high school a few weeks short of graduation. Erickson joined a group called the Spades, who recorded what became one of his most popular songs, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”
Soon Erickson was approached by Tommy Hall, a philosophy major, lyricist, and devotee of hallucinogens. “I told him I wanted to do what Dylan was doing, playing rock music but with serious lyrics,” Hall told an interviewer in 2004. ”I told him about what I was learning with LSD, and he really became interested. He agreed to join me in forming a new rock group.”
They called themselves the 13th Floor Elevators, and their 1966 version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was better produced and more popular — ultimately peaking at 55 on the Billboard Hot 100. Hall, who started playing the electric jug, insisted the band trip before every show. This level of commitment, along with the group’s recent arrest record, impressed the Bay Area rockers in San Francisco when the group first performed there. The Elevators were already calling themselves “psychedelic,” and the counterculture followed suit.
In addition to LSD, weed, speed, and mescaline, Erickson began taking whatever drugs were offered him, regardless of whether or not he knew what they were. In November 1967 he hesitated before taking the stage in Houston because “he didn’t want people to see the third eye in the middle of his forehead.” That month the Elevators released their second album, Easter Everywhere, which opened with the acidic “Slip Inside This House.”
Easter Everywhere failed to chart, but the band remained a strong draw in Texas, even though their stage show was devolving into feedback-soaked jams. Erickson’s drug use continued unabated and became a strain on his mental health. He was prescribed antipsychotic drugs and hospitalized. He only sang a few songs on the last Elevators’ album, Bull of the Woods. One of them was the beguiling “Dr. Doom.”
“Dear Doctor Doom,” Erickson sings in a lyric penned by Hall, “read your recent letter.”
No, you can’t make heaven in the east nirvana
But you can make certain that the ghost is there
And the always presence you have found within you
Is the same in heaven fully made aware
Bull of the Woods was released in March 1969. That year, Erickson was arrested for marijuana possession and ultimately diagnosed with “schizophrenia acute, undifferentiated.” He was institutionalized, but after several breakouts from Austin State Hospital, he was transferred to the maximum security Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane and given shock treatments and Thorazine. “I was in there with people who’d chopped up people with a butcher knife,” he told a friend, “and they treated me worse because I had long hair.” He was 22.
Erickson later claimed to have faked insanity to beat the possession rap, which would have meant a sentence between two years and life.
In 1974, Erickson formed a group called Bleib Alien, a play on the German bleib allein, or “stay alone.” Their single “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” defies category. Its galvanic rhythm predates punk. Erickson conjures horror film images three years before the horror punk band Misfits formed.
A dozen years later, Erickson’s Gremlins Have Pictures contained “I’m a Demon,” a simple number with a dark heart. “I’m a demon, and I love rock ‘n’ roll,” Erickson sings, sounding a little like rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson. “I see a demon, and at the same time I see you.”
I present these songs, not just because they make for great listening, but because even as a writer I can’t conceive of a better way of remembering a musician than by listening to their music.
Moreover, Erickson’s output was so varied as to be uncontainable. Consider the two Buddy Holly–esque versions of “Starry Eyes” from All That May Do My Rhyme as compared to the wayward, anthemic “I Walked With a Zombie” from The Evil One.
We in the West have a propensity to mythologize artists, especially dead ones. We like to send them on what professor and author Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, also known as the “monomyth,” because similar stories have permeated the history of human culture. According to Campbell, the hero must leave the Ordinary World, descend into the Special World, survive an Ordeal, and return with transformative knowledge. In popular culture, we’ve seen this narrative play out many times, from Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings.
Roky Erickson was in many ways an ideal candidate to become a monetized modern shaman. He was an outsider — regional long before regional was cool — and could therefore be allowed to lead and not follow. His prodigious intake of psychedelic drugs perhaps allowed him special insight — as his band mate Tommy Hall described in the liner notes to the Elevators’ first album.
“Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state,” Hall wrote, adding that hallucinogens can “restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, therefore approaching them more sanely.” Many jazz fans and musicians believed that having a heroin addiction, like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker did, could heighten creativity. Some still do.
Erickson’s mental health issues would also qualify him for artistic canonization, along with other musicians like Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, and Daniel Johnston. The outlandish Erickson stories are legion. Author Michael Hall recalled his first encounter with Erickson in 1984. “After we started our interview that afternoon,” Hall wrote, “he pulled the cellophane from a cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket to reveal a bee crawling around inside. He examined it briefly, returned it to his pocket, and continued, rambling on many subjects, making connections between things that weren’t the least bit connected.”
Even Erickson’s friends and family sometimes hindered him through good intentions. “Everybody treated him like a god,” Erickson’s friend Terry Moore told Michael Hall. “Nobody would say, ‘Roky, you need to straighten up.’” Warner Brothers record executive Bill Bentley “never saw the dark side” of Erickson’s mother and long-time caregiver Evelyn. “She tried to cure Roky in so many ways, according to her belief,” Bentley said. “She might have loved him too much. He was her oldest, the most talented. He was a star, a little god-like creature.”
It seems as if our culture confers a special status on people like Roky Erickson by making them heroes, but what we’re really doing is preserving them as the Other. We make them bring us new perspectives and expressions which, after some resistance, we will incorporate into the culture. Erickson’s gift to us was resonance — he internalized comic books, psychoactive drugs, James Brown, and Bob Dylan, and returned his own magical version. And for the most part we understood, even if that meant thinking about the world in a new way. He could ingest DMT, get hassled by the cops, be confined to an insane asylum, and live in near poverty — after all, many people still treat those as hallmarks of artistic authenticity. And we could walk through the doors he opened without risk.
Erickson survived long enough to enjoy legitimacy. In 2005, he performed at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival, and anchored a panel on the 13th Floor Elevators, who had been recently inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. You’re Gonna Miss Me, a documentary about his life, came out that year, as well as an anthology, I Have Always Been Here Before. By then, according to writer Margaret Moser, Erickson had become “the very picture of Austin’s sly, laid-back, and plugged-in populace.” It’s a shame he had to suffer so much to get there.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.
Dvora Meyers | Longreads | June 2019 | 25 minutes (6,257 words)
More than two decades ago, a billboard went up in Salt Lake City near the 600 South exit of the I-15. It featured a young woman in repose clad in a sleeveless black leotard, her back to the viewer and her head tilted up. The weight of her upper body rested on her right arm, which was extended behind her; her left arm lay languidly on her bent left knee. Her right leg was extended straight in front of her, its foot arch, creating the appearance of a straight line from hip to toe.
The angle of the woman’s head seemingly bathed her face in light, her long curly blonde hair falling freely down her neck. The pose was reminiscent of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, only inverted.
Passersby unable to make out the words printed in small text beneath the image would be forgiven for not knowing what exactly the billboard was advertising. Was it selling a dance performance or was it an ad for workout apparel or a photography exhibit at a local gallery? Visually, there were few clues.
An artist named Stephanie Montgomery was raped at the LA strip club where she worked. Montgomery worked at the strip club to help fund her creative pursuits, and during slow times at work, she often sketched customers and coworkers. After, her manager and the rapist denied the assault took place, and the police failed to do more than collect a chillingly detailed account of the assault, so Montgomery used her talents and painted the grizzly story of her assault on a 48-by-14 feet billboard at the entrance of one of LA’s busiest freeways. Journalist Kathy Dobie tells Montgomery’s story at The California Sunday Magazine. Montgomery’s is the story of female talent getting thwarted, of male violence and female credibility, of men betraying their female coworkers, and of how little help there is for women to deal with the aftermath of sexual assault.
Stephanie came to realize she’d reached the dead end of a road she had never wanted to be on in the first place. Nothing was going to happen. No justice, just another rape, the world moved on. The #MeToo movement had opened up the conversation, sure, and it had also spurred men into hyperdefensiveness and aggression, but when the smoke cleared, had anything really changed? Where were the arrests, the convictions? Did a stripper have a bigger voice, a better shot at justice than she would’ve two or five or twenty years ago?
As the months passed, something boiled and wept inside her; she couldn’t live with the silence, couldn’t let the rape go unanswered or pretend it never happened, as she had first hoped to do. An idea began to take hold. She was going to paint something, something huge, something public, and call out the rapist, the strip club, the LAPD.