Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Bill's Signs

In 1966 my father closed his sign shop at the corner of Saticoy and Woodman Avenue in the San Fernando Valley, just across from the Gas Giant. The shop, Bill's Signs, was only moderately successful, and he had been offered a position as the principal artist for Foster and Kleiser, a company that owned and maintained billboards. At the time, billboards were akin to wallpaper for the most part, but not on the Sunset Strip. There they were hand-painted and in-your-face and would become as iconic driving down the Strip as the Chateau Marmont or the statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle. My father's first billboard was The Doors, and over a 14 year span, he was responsible for Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s So Far and dozens of others. I didn’t see my father much growing up, but if I ever needed him, I knew where to go; I'd just cruise down Sunset, and although I wasn't allowed, once I found him I'd climb the ladder to the platform and we'd sit, our feet dangling over the edge, and talk as we gazed at the city in the smog.

Jim Morrison looked out over a changing Hollywood and wrote "L.A. Woman;" a song about change and loss. The billboards along Sunset today are primarily for Calvin Klein or BMW; a statement itself in how the Strip has evolved. There has always been speculation who the L.A. Woman might be, with Pamela Courson the obvious choice; in reality the L.A. Woman was Los Angeles: "Never saw a woman so alone..."

Jac Holzman of Elektra Records was the first to venture into this advertising medium. For $1,200 a month, he reserved a sign near the Chateau Marmont hotel , and inaugurated it with the Doors, who were the "house band" at the Whisky A-Go-Go just down the street. Holzman reasoned that L.A. disc jockeys would see the sign on their way to work, saying the billboard was "a calling card for the artist, but it was a very large calling card."

Below is a collection of Sunset Billboards, some from Robert Landau's fabulous coffee table book, Rock 'n' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip (available through Amazon). I do not own the rights to these photos, only the rights to my father. And, of course, you can read so much more in Jay and the Americans. Click on the links in the sidebar, please!

"That is the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life," Springsteen said when he saw the billboard for Darkness on the Edge of Town (not my father's - wrong company). The Boss proceeded to "enhance" it with graffiti. Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, bassist Garry Tallent, and some crew members arrived late at night with twenty cans of black spray paint. Springsteen wrote "E Street" himself while standing on Clemons' shoulders. "I wanted to get to my face, and paint on a mustache," he said. "But it was just too damn high.