A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from a major (read: very expensive) New York–based PR firm announcing an upcoming event in L.A. This is a several-times-a-day occurrence in the life of a music editor, but what made this e-mail odd was that the publicist had not sent the name of the musician in question, or of any particular album or gig.
Instead, all the e-mail had was a drawing of a wall with a long, not particularly memorable quote by Dwight Eisenhower about how excessive military spending takes resources away from social spending. The publicist also directed me to an address in downtown L.A. between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.
I wrote back to him pointing out that to send a reporter to cover whatever that was, I would need more details. “Sorry to be so cryptic,” the publicist e-mailed back. “We're working a viral marketing campaign for Roger Waters, but we promised we wouldn't drop his name/Pink Floyd right off the bat. We're broadcasting this quote around L.A./NYC this weekend between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. each day Thur/Fri/Sat, so you'll have some time to check it out, and we'll be servicing pictures as well. If you feel inclined to write anything, do a favor and [don't] explicitly drop his name?”
As I was pondering how best to cover this and what exactly he meant by “broadcasting this quote,” the following day I received another message from the same publicist saying they didn't have the L.A. shots yet, but now “they've decided that we're going to make a formal announcement.” The word “they” presumably referred to Waters' people. “Things are moving so, so quickly!,” the publicist added.
I was aware that Waters was about to embark on another, typically oversize extravaganza, once again trotting out his heavy-handed 1979 rock opera, The Wall. However, nothing in the initial communication pegged this self-described “viral marketing” campaign to the upcoming tour.
Later that afternoon, the publicist e-mailed me some photos of a couple of downtown L.A. buildings with enormous light projections of the quote on their sides, according to the instructions the millionaire U.K. bassist had given his pricey New York team of marketing geniuses and PR experts.
This was street art for the global village, a monstrous takeover of an organic, popular, sometimes subversive art form by the kinds of faceless corporate entities that Waters lambasts again and again in his work. So we wrote a little Web post about it, gently mocking the endeavor and expressing puzzlement at the choice of Eisenhower as a pacifist sage, and that was that.
Except it wasn't. A few days later I happened to be walking on Sunset Boulevard past the wall between Solutions Audio-Video Repair and hip cantina Malo, the one with the swirling red, white and blue design immortalized by Los Feliz/Silver Lake rock photographer Autumn De Wilde as the background to an iconic image of Elliott Smith. The image gained worldwide renown as the cover of Smith's last completed album, Figure 8, in 2000.
After the singer's tragic death three years later, the wall became a popular, moving memorial for his fans, who would scribble heartfelt messages about the way Smith's music had touched their lives. It also became a popular photo spot for rock-inclined visitors to Los Angeles.
Much like that other impromptu rock memorial, Jim Morrison's tomb in Paris, “the Elliott Smith wall” (as it is known in the neighborhood) has been repeatedly covered by less whimsical taggers, a reminder that the stretch between Los Feliz and Silver Lake was not and still might not be as gentrified as the hype would have it. Smith's friends and fans have occasionally led campaigns to “restore” the original design, but large graffiti pieces can be seen co-existing with the ballpoint I miss you Elliotts more often than not.
That evening, however, I noticed that a third form of message had joined the other two: a glued poster bearing the Eisenhower quote in the distinctive Pink Floyd: The Wall font, together with a pseudo-stencilled image of a soldier cradling a child. Clearly, Waters' marketing team had moved on from humongous projections to strategically placed “street art.”
I snapped a photo with my cell phone and the next day, May 4, wrote on the Weekly's West Coast Sound blog a post titled, “Roger Waters Paid Street Artists to Deface Elliott Smith Memorial Mural.” (Granted, while 100 percent accurate, the headline was not very subtle. After the blog post went genuinely viral — without the help of an expensive PR team — fans of the former Pink Floyd frontman pointed this out. To be called unsubtle by Roger Waters' fans is a bit rich.)
“Elliott Smith's moving memorial,” I wrote, “is now part of Waters' 'guerrilla' marketing campaign for expensive tickets to a nostalgia gig aimed at wealthy boomers.”
The post spread throughout the Internet in a matter of hours, garnering attention from Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, NME, Entertainment Weekly and other national and international publications. Word got to Waters, who was busy preparing the “official” announcement of his The Wall Live tour, and he promptly called the L.A. Times to set the record straight.
“It was absolutely an accident,” Waters told the Times. “I didn't want to disrespect Elliott Smith's fans, and I've instructed [the team] to remove the wheat paste immediately. It was a random pasting in the normal course of this, and I want to make it public that we had no intent to offend or cover up something precious.” Waters went on to point out (as we had guessed) that until that day he had no idea who Smith was, but after familiarizing himself with his work, he thought the singer's fans might enjoy the sentiment of the quote.
We received many, many comments about the matter. A few of them were even pro-Waters and others pointed out that what “his team” had done was no different from what the street artists we often celebrate at L.A. Weekly do.
I think there's a crucial difference between all these writings on the wall. One of our commenters definitely got to the core of it:
“Elliott Smith,” she wrote, “did not 'strategize' a memorial to his songwriting. Elliott's fans chose this wall as a memorial the night he died, not his manager, not any of the record label — his fans. They just started showing up. Honestly, if Elliott was still alive, he would probably feel bad for the artist who painted the mural and the owner of Sound Solutions, apologize and offer to help repaint it. Honestly, I'd rather have Elliott back than a wall.
“But the wall is a nice memorial for a few reasons. I think that if Roger Waters himself had gone out there and done this I would respect him more. But sitting in an overpriced armchair while a 'street team' disrespects not just this memorial but real street artists that are actually risking something to go out into the night and plaster the city with their point of view pisses me off. I know that it's not just fans that write on this wall. Street artists are pasting over each other, gangs are at war and crossing out each other's tags, some kid doesn't even know who the fuck Elliott Smith is or why everyone writes on this wall, but he really wants to write FUCK YOU all over it because he's mad at his mom.
“Isn't this what Pink Floyd used to represent? I think this is what makes me sad. Maybe I am pissed off today because I think I'd rather hear that Roger Waters had woken up yesterday and decided that he was so sick of his fancy chair and his big house and his fancy car and all those fancy meetings where everyone comes up with fancy strategies that he decided he was going to drive to the east side of Los Angeles, walk right up to that weird wall on Sunset Boulevard where everyone gets to write whatever they are feeling that day and spray FUCK YOU in big red letters.”
That insightful comment was written by none other than Autumn de Wilde.
“Maybe, just maybe,” she added, “when I took that photograph of Elliott Smith in front of that wall I was kind of inspired by Pink Floyd's The Wall, Sid Barrett's The Mad Cap Laughs, the Beatles' The White Album and that amazing photo of Nick Drake standing in front of a wall, looking to one side as a girl runs by. Maybe Elliott and I were trying to sell his record, and pay homage to other artists. Maybe it was one of those really special times where I wasn't participating in a corporate strategy myself. It was a stereo repair shop called Sound Solutions. I had been staring at it since I was a kid. I loved it, it was kind of ugly, kind of beautiful and when I showed it to Elliott he loved it too. I was paying homage to a side of Los Angeles that I felt was often overlooked at that time. Random, strange and beautiful murals, street art.”