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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

(continued from page 1)

"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."

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