Lee Cantelon; the front cover art for The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard (note: click on album cover for enlarged view)
the sermon on exposition boulevard: beginnings
"If the cook hadn't broken his foot that night at Gloria's..."
To tell the story behind The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, I have to begin with the dinner at Gloria's. It was late spring 2005. Peter Atanasoff and I had gone out to see an exhibit of Manuel O'Campo's paintings. After the show, we all went to dinner at Gloria's, Marc's favorite Salvadoran restaurant, located in Culver City. Marc was a Gloria's regular, and excited to expose us to their bistec encebollado, sweet corn tamales, and garlic shrimp. There were about twelve of us that night. We sat down at two long tables joined together to create a kind of impromptu last supper scene, oddly appropriate after the religious-themed art that is the trademark of O'Campo's work. The room was a riot of colored light, paper decorations, and mirrors. Our conversation competed with the loud Salvadoran music. When the food took longer than usual to come from the kitchen, I found myself talking with Marc, who I was meeting for the first time. Our conversation turned to Peter's and my plan to record a spoken-word record based on my book, The Words. I told Marc that we were trying to do the project on a shoestring budget. A few weeks earlier, I had been living in a $400-a-month room in Hollywood, with no kitchen, and a shower and bath at the end of the hall. Even pooling my resources with Peter's, we were unlikely candidates to produce a record. So when Marc offered us the use of his art studio, which was just a few blocks north off of Venice Boulevard, we jumped at the opportunity. **
A few days later, Peter and I went down to Marc's studio, located on Exposition Boulevard in Culver City. Exposition cuts an abbreviated swath north-east, connecting Venice Boulevard to Washington. It's an industrial street hosting warehouses and small industries, and the occasional vacant lot. Its textures are fading brick, graffiti, barred windows, peeling paint, chain link and razor wire. The sounds of traffic from Venice and Washington dim as you reach the loading bay doors that are the entrance to Marc's studio situated in the middle of the block. There's the occasional barking of a dog chained in the back of an auto body shop (we complained to the owners). Shopping carts are abandoned on the sidewalk. A tree trunk was eerily reminiscent of one of Marc's paintings. From here, Marc used to run his film company (Red Dog Films). Marc's father, Jay Chiat, was the co-founder of the Venice-based advertising powerhouse, Chiat-Day, and Marc was once a successful commercial director (most well-known for his Foster Farms "chicken" ads). But he had burned-out making ads, and turned to painting, something he now pursued full time. The walls of the warehouse studio were covered with Marc's large canvases, paintings that depicted piles of rocks and trash, sewage pipes, the careless refuse that represented the world we live in, and wounded dogs, something he did to express his feelings about war. The place was a tremendous jumble of open paint tubes, brushes, and odd tables and chairs that had been designed by friends. We felt instantly at home, as if our heretofore vagabond project had finally found a home. We circled a date on the calendar next to the kitchen, a red-Sharpie scribble that indicted our decision to begin recording on Exposition Boulevard.
I had first talked about the idea of doing a spoken-word recording of my book with punk bass player, Mike Watt. This was back in 2001. During the next couple of years, I had crossed paths with Mike a few times, and we continued to discuss this project whose purpose was to distance the words of Jesus from a traditional or religious enclosure. Mike had encouraged me to pursue the idea, and offered to read from the book. After many detours and delays, it finally felt like things were lining up to do it for real. Peter was at work on some beautiful melodies, and now we had a studio to record in.
I had renewed my acquaintance with Peter Atanasoff after moving back to Los Angeles from Olympia, Washington. We soon became fast friends. Peter's music, songs that he was writing at his house in the Hollywood hills, had started me thinking again about the spoken-word project. There was a bare and truthful quality to what he was writing and recording. We began getting together to work out the right sound for the spoken-word music. It should be modern, I thought, but have echoes of something ancient, or primitive. It should be beautiful, Peter thought, but not too pretty. There should be a broken quality to the sound. It should be full of longing. We both agreed that the music should not be too polished, nor overly produced, and that it should be recorded in as few takes as possible to keep it honest.
Peter and I would usually meet at my apartment in Hollywood in the afternoons. I would underline passages from the book, while Peter would improvise chord progressions that were responses to the text. At some point, I began drawing pictures on sheets of typewriter paper, roughly drawn suggestions, clouds, storms, deserts, rocks, suns, moons, or pools of water. These were my attempt to illustrate the feeling of the different ideas in the book. Peter would then gracefully interpreted these scrawls on his guitar. Somewhere in the house, I had a folio of John Cage's work. At times his scores were more symbols and drawings than musical notation, and this was how we began "writing" the music for the project. We came to rely on these drawings, and carried these drawings around as if they were sheet music, Scotch-taping them end-to-end so they could be spread out on the floor, or hung from the wall, like long scrolls. Interestingly enough, they were much like the subject matter of Marc's paintings, which had a desert quality to them. It was as if we were channeling some inspiration that had also been ignited in Marc's creativity.
During these initial writing days, Peter and I would walk about downtown Los Angeles, around MacArthur Park. We started recording bits of conversation, and the cacophonous sounds of the city on mini-disc. Back in my apartment, we would listen to this collision of voices, commotion, shouts, laughter, sirens, the soul-din of the city. To us it was the most human of choirs performing a song ignored and often shut out for cultural, economic, and/or racial reasons. John Larsen was one of the extraordinary personalities we met during this time. John lived wherever he could find shelter on streets of Los Angeles, and is one of the most well read people I've ever met, especially if you want to talk French literature or theology (the first time we met he spent hours exploring Jacques Ellul, and Robbe-Grillet). I spent hours talking with John about this project and its meaning, and appreciated his skepticism - who wouldn't be wary of the material I was working on, considering the unfortunate reputation of Christianity and works done "in the name of Jesus"? John became one of the most unusual exponents of the project, offering advice that was tempered by his intellect and life on the streets. Once, I invited him to crash on my couch, which he did. There was little sleep that night. We stayed up until dawn talking books and religion.
From these experiences, Peter and I emerged with sketches for a dozen or more songs. Joined by Peter's friend, Bernie Larsen, we dragged amps, microphones, and instruments down to Marc's space, converting it overnight to the semblance of a recording studio. Bernie brought in his portable mixing gear, a very battered laptop, and speakers. In a great, loud din of electric guitars, we leapt into the project. After a few hours of letting out all of our pent-up creative emotion, we settled into the groove, and began laying down tracks that meandered along the graphic timeline of the drawings. Mike Watt came over from San Pedro, thumped along on his bass, and even read from the book. Marc painted furiously in the background, and would ride off on his bike to bring back food from a local Oaxacan take-out (Sabores de Oaxaca). An Iraqi singer, Kasim, who had never before heard his voice from a recording, journeyed by bicycle and train from West Covina to add to the mix. One song, that we called The Epic, was eleven minutes long (didn't make the album, but may be posted online). As the music emerged, it seemed to suggest stories; of lostness, isolation, and spiritual yearning. These humble songs managed to evoke a place where music, language, and culture blurred into one prayer. Marc's cluttered studio, on a poor street in Los Angeles, was the sanctuary for this work.
read chapter two: The project takes a dramatic turn
** Only later, did we find out why the food had taken two hours to come to the table. The cook had broken his foot! If that hadn't have happened, I might not have had time to get to know Marc, and what became
The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard may have taken a very different course.