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It's Only Rock & Roll, But I'll Buy It

Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

Man, it was unbelievable. Two hours before the show was set to start, the line wrapped around the block. It didn't matter that this was yet another cold San Francisco night. There they were, long hairs and straights, old loyalists and young punks, in parkas and trench coats, T-shirts and flannels, blue jeans and khakis. Some kept warm by singing songs. Others were imbibing and inhaling, as they had done so many times before. Entrepreneurs were passing out business cards, hustling the licensed and bootleg products that are perennial players in this scene. The promoter, hyper as ever, paced around his office--a room filled with coffins, books, photos and other images that left you wondering whether his venue was a celebration of life or of death. The talent were looking crisp and primed for a big night.

At last it was show time. The doors flew open, and the fans knew the wait had been worth it. With the talent standing front and center, the familiar sounds filled the room. But there was no live band. Although a DJ was spinning such Grateful Dead tunes as "Terrapin," "Truckin',"

"Dark Star" and "Not Fade Away," this was only background music to the main event.

Welcome to "The Art of The Dead," an exhibit of the poster art of the Grateful Dead that ran for 10 weeks this winter. (The exhibit is now wending its way around the United States, with stops in as many as 50 cities planned, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland starting Sept. 15.) Hung elegantly on the wood-paneled walls of a 4,500-square-foot San Francisco art gallery called ArtRock, the exhibit displayed approximately 100 posters, flyers, postcards, tickets, lithographs, silk screens, photo-graphs, album covers and art originals. They ranged in price from $15 for a poster announcing the Dead's final tour in 1996 to $20,000 for the original artwork from the 1967 "Trip or Freak" concert that was canceled when San Francisco police got word that everyone attending was planning to take LSD.

Passionate, vivid colors jump forward. Red, yellow, blue, green and orange cohabit like some sort of graphic crash pad. They sug-gest the mood swings of the tunes, evoking the Renaissance Fair atmosphere of a Dead show and recalling a time when sex, drugs and rock and roll did not hold the specter of AIDS. Take Rick Griffin's 1969 "Aoxomoxoa" (available for $250 in the ArtRock catalog). The handcrafted letters, clearly influenced by LSD and other consciousness-raising agents, are intentionally designed for difficult reading. They demand close study. Funky guitars, embryos and a fried eye or sizzling sun doubling as an egg penetrated by sperm are also part of this popular poster.

Peering at the letters and the images, recalling past concerts and humming favorite songs, the show's attendees were loving every min-ute as they shared in the communal and personal joy that makes rock and roll the music of a generation. "These posters document the social history of my times--and yours, too," says 46-year-old Rusty Goldman, a poster lover so impassioned, dedicated and knowledgeable that he has earned the title Professor Poster, which is also the name of the collector's forum he runs from a venue that's been dubbed "Posterville."

Lurking everywhere was the Dead's trademark skeleton, as iconographic a logo as the Rolling Stones' tongue or the Nike swoosh. The commercial comparison is intentional. Rock and roll artwork has become more than a curious sidekick to the music. It is a big-money business. Not only will the wealthy shell out thousands for an original Fillmore poster; many more will spend hundreds for reprints that are available via telephone. Among the items offered in the 32-page December 1996 ArtRock catalog is a signed and numbered (1,500 copies) silk screen of "The Fiddler," a red-robed skeleton featured on the cover of the Grateful Dead's 1975 album, Blues for Allah, for $350. An 8 1/2-inch-by-11-inch handbill from 1966 of the band's "Skull and Roses" emblem goes for $450.

Flip through ArtRock's catalog and you'll find that the Grateful Dead is just part of a thriving rock and roll gallery. Other items of note include a 36-inch-by-24-inch original Woodstock poster that goes for $750, a poster for a 1967 Doors gig priced at $200 and a Jimi Hendrix concert poster for $650. And, although they aren't as popular as psychedelic images, a few pieces from the 1970s command high prices. A poster from the Rolling Stones' 1973 concert at Car-diff Castle sells for $1,750, a rare photo of Led Zeppelin is available for $700 and one of only three original flyers for a 1974 Kiss concert goes for $650. "Since they're not doing cocaine anymore, they've now got excessive money to spend," Jefferson Starship (née Airplane) legend Paul Kantner says of those eternal rock fans who are eager to shed their discretionary dollars.

A decade ago, Phil Cushway, the antsy promoter and owner of ArtRock, started his business in a 900-square-foot unheated basement in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today, ArtRock leases a 25,000-square-foot San Francisco warehouse, which, in addition to the gallery, houses production, shipping and warehouse facilities. Hold-ing more than a million pieces of art in stock, ArtRock, Cushway claims, is the largest repository of rock and roll artwork in the world. (ArtRock's extensive full-color catalog can be ordered by calling 800/262-7249.) If the poster that's your Rosebud isn't here, it probably belongs to the ages. Then again, it might turn up someday in an abandoned warehouse, musty basement or random bedroom.


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