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

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.
"If you're going to San Francisco..."
--"San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)," sung by Scott MacKenzie
San Francisco is to rock and roll artwork what Florence was to the Renaissance: the epicenter of activity, a densely populated urban area just cozy enough to make the genre relevant. Back in the '60s, in the days when acid rock and the FM radio stations that played it were still underground and the music had yet to be annexed by the big record labels, the poster was a vital marketing vehicle. It was cheap, it was hip and it was easily stapled to telephone poles in such neighborhoods as Haight Ashbury, North Beach and Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue.
Thirty years after the Summer of Love, the afterglow of the psychedelic era remains profound. ArtRock's top sellers are concert posters that feature such groups as the Grateful Dead, rock's most successful cult band, which finally stopped the show when lead man Jerry Garcia died in 1995; the Doors, the Los Angeles-based tortured souls who planted enough literary allusions in their lyrics to satisfy many an undergraduate; Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the impassioned singer and the fiery guitarist, both of whom, like the Doors' Jim Morrison, died before reaching the untrustworthy age of 30; and Led Zeppelin, the exemplary hard-rock band of the '70s.
A popular poster defines a time and place. "Personality posters that just show the artists in action without featuring a concert and a specific date don't sell particularly well," says Cush-way. "Gigs sell." Winterland, Fillmore, Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Altamont, Watkins Glen and other venues are the markers of a generation, providing visual, tactile verification of one moment in time.
This emphasis on concert artwork explains why posters of the Beatles, though certainly popular, are neither among the biggest sellers nor the subject of much poster lover dialogue. For starters, the band stopped touring in 1966, two and a half years after its American debut. Furthermore, its manager, Brian Epstein, exerted tremendous control over any depiction of the group's name or images, thereby suppressing visual interpretations by anyone but Beatles-sanctioned artists. Beyond this infrastructure, the Beatles are so epic and familiar to one and all that putting one of their posters on the wall fails to make any personal statement. A Beatles poster in today's world is about as unusual as a horse painting in a hotel room. There are instances, of course, of rare Beatles posters, art and photos. Cushway has heard rumors of one Fab Four piece going for $30,000.
In contrast, the Grateful Dead gained its reputation as a live band, simultaneously inspiring the need for a stream of posters and creating a catalog of largely non-mainstream songs. By building a concert-going following that spans decades, the Dead has also managed to continually maintain an aura of youthful possibility--a yearning that is quite significant for poster lovers who are increasingly reminded of their own mortality. "Did you know that every eight seconds a baby boomer turns 50?" asks Professor Poster.
"Once upon a time," says Cushway, staring longingly at a '60s poster for a London concert of The Who's Peter Townshend, "we were that young, too." In the song, "My Generation," Townshend and his mates had requested that "I hope I die before I get old." Might a poster provide that spark of youth? Perhaps history does not run in a straight line but instead moves in a circular pattern, putting the past eternally in front of us for a tab of contemplation and a few hits of nostalgia.
"Rock and roll posters tell the story of an era that was special for many, many people, regardless of whether they were literally there or not," says Gayle Lemke, author of the forthcoming book Bill Graham Presents: The Art of the Fillmore (Acid Test Productions). "You can extract an anecdote, or that day in history, or any number of personal memories from those posters." One need not have been there for the allure to exist. For every Wood-stock attendee, there are thousands who wish they'd gone and millions more who heard the music. For many, the psychedelic era exists more as a dreamy state of desire than as a reality. Buying posters is a chance to ponder that night your older sibling came home buzzing with an intensity that you were probably too young to have experienced. A poster reminds its buyer of an era when the Doors sang, "We want the world and we want it now"--and such an achievement seemed possible.
As an artistic genre, posters stand at the crossroads of art and commerce, myth and reality, advertising and propaganda. They are primarily works of commercial art, designed to promote and persuade. Before the '60s, the last great era of poster art occurred during the Second World War, when Uncle Sam put out the call to potential soldiers. Rock posters were similarly committed to enlisting thousands in a cause. "There was tribal unity in that time, a chance to leap above and over the Judeo-Christian-Muslim myth and enter the world of freedom," says Ray Manzarek of the Doors. "Today's poster collectors would like to get a little piece of that tribe, and maybe even obtain a little peace in their own lives."
The initial rock posters employed a style similar to that used on bills for boxing matches--block letters, names, dates, spot color. "It was all very much a man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit kind of world," says Alton Kelley, one of the major poster artists of the '60s. "Everything seemed so flat in those days. Even the beatniks were black and somber."
The San Francisco sensibility of the '60s changed that dramatically. While it's not necessary to explain the decade's history in detail here, witness the convergence of events: the shock of John Kennedy's assassination, escalation of an unpopular war, the widespread usage of birth control pills, a vibrant economy, millions of privileged youngsters searching for emotional sustenance, and a burgeoning drug culture where psychedelics were taking off (LSD was legal in California until 1966).
On a more grassroots level, the rock and roll poster movement grew out of San Francisco's booming, freewheeling party scene, a world where it was easy to attend two dozen parties in a weekend. The parties kept getting bigger. With events in places like Berkeley, Selma and Hanoi nudging consciousness, the days of the sock-hop gave way to a convergence of music and politics. It was incumbent upon the poster to convey this nascent sensibility. "Posters before weren't making any kind of statement," says Chet Helms, the San Francisco producer who believes he was the first person to bring a strobe light to a concert, and who later launched the Family Dog series of events at such famed venues as the Avalon Ballroom. "No, I didn't imagine they would gain in enormity. Yes, I wanted to create an advertising vehicle that would have a life beyond the actual event. We wanted to create something that wasn't disposable."
It is interesting that both Helms and the Fillmore's Bill Graham, the other promoter who is most credited with bringing the contemporary poster to life, had a messiah-like sensibility. Helms, a humanities student, came from a family of evangelists and printers. Graham, a Jew born in Germany in 1931, wore the scars of coming to America as a refugee. Although he was never as overtly political as Helms, Graham was even more committed to putting a personal stamp on history through success in business--an ambition that surfaced in his ability to recognize the commercial viability of the budding music scene. Each promoter also knew that posters were a powerful and inexpensive means of generating ticket sales (Graham and Helms typically paid each artist $100).
The posters were another sign of an America that was rapidly going technicolor. Most photographs of the tie-clad activists who launched the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964 are in black and white. But between 1964 and 1967, from the NBC peacock to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album cover, the use of color in everything from advertising to television to fashion to automobiles accelerated. In step with this transformation was the Acid Test and the posters that dared people to take the exam in all of its sunburst, tie-dyed morning glory (one of which featured hand-coloring by Sunshine Kesey, the daughter of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and a notable Acid Test leader). "It was an unofficial secret code that rested in those posters," says Paul Kantner of the Starship. "It was a language that reached out for freedom, that told people the only way to find out what's going on is to come out and participate."
Participation is a critical reason that posters are so popular. The posters that emerged in the '60s weren't hyping what we now think of as concerts--predominantly passive activities with assigned seats in arenas that hold more than 10,000. These new posters were designed to promote dances in small, intimate venues, packed with a few thousand roving youths searching for intellectual and carnal transcendence. Prior to the dances, posters were frequently ripped off telephone poles and hung on the refrigerators and walls of many a residence. "The scene was new, it was growing and we were doing posters for real events, like Lautrec in the Moulin Rouge," says Kelley. The artists loved the way their work literally entered the lives of their audiences. Many artists talk about being initially upset but subsequently delighted when their posters were torn down and plunked into assorted homes. The art was part of the audience's life.
Posters designed by Kelley and his long-standing partner, Stanley Mouse, pursued cultural engagement with a vengeance, drawing on eclectic images to create a sensibility for the '60s. As Mouse recalls in San Francisco Rock (Chronicle Books, 1985), "What we came up with out of the rubble was twentieth century teenage hip Ameri-cana. It's electrical age folk art." A 1966 Avalon poster, dubbed "Girl with Green Hair" by Mouse and Kelley, is essentially a recasting of a style originated years ago by the early twentieth century French artist Alphonse Mucha. Another of their posters from 1966, for a Big Brother & the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service gig, lifts the artwork from Zig-Zag, the popular cigarette rolling paper company. And the Dead's "Skull and Roses," arguably the most famous Kelley-Mouse work, was taken from E.J. Sullivan's illustration for the 26th quatrain of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Legend has it that upon coming across this drawing, Kelley turned to Mouse and asked, "Stanley, is this the Grateful Dead or what?" The mixing of blue and red, the deathly skeleton ready for a karmic cleansing and the celebration of life through the rose convey the band's eternal themes of life, death and rebirth. It's made this piece the Dead's unofficial insignia.
"The Dead think of themselves as ugly," says Dennis McNally, the band's publicist and historian. "They're not into being photographed. They'd rather encourage artists to make images. The whole point of the band is utterly democratic. The Dead didn't want people sitting and watching. They wanted people taking part in the music."
"Don't you want somebody to love?"
--"Somebody to Love," Jefferson Airplane
In many cases, participation was far less concerned with changing the world and more focused on having a good time. "A lot of this was about sex," says Eric King, a poster collector who has compiled one of the most extensive collector's guides to posters, postcards and handbills of the 1965-1973 period. Wes Wilson's "The Sound," a 1966 poster for a Winterland/Fillmore series featuring the Jefferson Airplane, Muddy Waters and the Butterfield Blues Band, is less notable for its hard-to-decipher orange letters, set against a background of olive green and purple, than for his drawing of a nude, voluptuous woman. Another evocative female image featuring frontal nudity appears in Norman Orr's 1971 poster for a Poco concert at Fillmore West. "It never got any sexier than this," says King. "This is who you'd meet at the concert--a woman who'd make love to you with abandon all night long." The woman was Orr's wife.
With thousands journeying to San Francisco to take in the scene firsthand, millions more across the nation were listening to the music. Helms' Avalon Ballroom and Graham's Fillmore were arguably the two prime outlets from which rock and roll grew into a multimillion-dollar industry. Later in the '60s, Graham would open the Fill-more East in New York, a cross-continental link that made the Fillmore as fabled a '60s venue as the Apollo Theatre was to the Harlem Renaissance. But the seeds for it all had been planted in San Francisco. "It was a new world we were making," says Kantner. "And the posters were the flags of that incipient republic."
"San Francisco was this boutique city," says Kelley. "You couldn't do this in New York, Chicago or L.A. They were too big for the word to spread through posters. But San Francisco had this intimacy and this Victorian kind of style of top hats, bright colors, fun clothes. San Fran-cisco encouraged experimentation in all walks of life." Or, at least, as Scott MacKenzie sang, putting a flower in your hair.
"The class of '67, we were the new barbarians," says Manzarek. "Posters give you just a taste of that vision and that freedom. That freedom is loaded with energy. The Fillmore, the Avalon--they were great energy sources. It was a time when passion mattered. Art like in those posters comes from a spiritual, political place."
"Liberty," a 1968 Mouse work, spoke directly to America's woes by using a bloody red and a somber black depiction of the Statue of Lib-erty--punctuated by one small white tear dripping from her eye. The concert, featuring Blood, Sweat & Tears and John Handy, is long over, but the image of a saddened national icon remains a graphic and enduring depiction of democracy gone awry.
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