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

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Lee Conklin's "New Year's Eve" piece for Dec. 31, 1968, shows countless bodies oozing through an hourglass, evoking Dante's Inferno and the Vietnam War's My Lai massacre, which had happened that year. Are America's youths, once so convinced that they could build a new world, now watching time run out like the imperiled Dorothy sitting in the witch's castle in The Wizard of Oz? "No question, that poster reflected a kind of dissolution with the political image of America the beautiful," Conklin recalls. "All of these things had been shattered."
The intensely personal and collectively political romance surrounding the posters--far outstripping any purported aesthetic resonance--personifies a generation's continuing desire to define and control its history. This is not to say that poster artwork is necessarily good or bad, or classic or creative. The cultural cache of rock and roll posters can be understood only in the context in which it was created and experienced. "These aren't meant to be worshiped and stashed like some Picasso original," says Paul Grushkin, arguably the dean of poster collectors, who wrote The Art of Rock (Abbeville Press, 1987), a nine-pound coffee-table book that is often considered the catalyst for the contemporary poster boom. "They are meant to be savored, enjoyed, hung up on walls and talked about. Posters are a people's narrative, a way to tap into our history."
That desire to parlay private interest into collective mes-sage, and, in the process, shape a nation's history, has been the eternal rallying cry for millions of Americans raised in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Thanks to a radical shift in American family life, no generation has been given greater license to take such a course. It is a social revolution that to this day affects our relationship with both time and space.
Prior to 1945, only the wealthiest Americans resided in homes that were large enough to provide children with private bedrooms. But with the onset of postwar affluence, and the growth of suburbia, millions of young Americans were given the chance to occupy their own personal space. Moreover, they were granted the freedom to enjoy themselves strictly as children, with minimal worries about pitching in to work the land, help during hard times, take care of extended family members or share a room with multiple siblings (OK, maybe one, but usually one who was either dominated by the older sibling or enamored of his or her activities).
Suddenly, for the first time in history, millions could enjoy the pleasures of childhood in all its joyful, consumption-based glory. The concept of "my room" provided a forum for adorning its walls with pennants of sports teams, photos of celebrities and other items--icons that were simultaneously consumed and worshiped by lots of other kids in the neighborhood. The arrival of television in the late 1940s further propelled this mass culture, collectively saturating youngsters with compelling visuals of Howdy Doody, Davy Crockett and the biggest group of the '50s, the Mickey Mouse Club (drawn, of course, by that ultimate poster-artist ancestor, Walt Disney). "Maybe the reason we were able to trip so harmoniously in the '60s was because we'd already been tripping together without knowing it," says Kantner. So where once the child had been raised to keep quiet and eventually adapt himself to the somber living room--and public, externalized history--of his parents and other elders, he was now at liberty to create a room of his own--and a private, internalized history that would find expression in school yards and dance halls.
It was in the bedrooms of suburbia where the "do your own thing" ethos was spawned. Relent-lessly self-conscious, yet powerfully committed to seizing the day (be it in sex, politics or any workable synthesis), this sensibility would provide the perfect locale for rock and roll artwork. "It's exactly like baseball cards," says Grushkin. "Once we hung posters in our dorm room, in our 'fucking get stoned' room, and now we have the chance and money to put this stuff in our living rooms."
Posterville takes this declaration to epic heights. Professor Poster is so in love with rock art that he has rented a space separate from his residence that is exclusively devoted to his passion. The apartment where Posterville is based, just south of San Francisco, resembles the utilitarian, shag-carpeted dwelling of a college sophomore. Don't ask when the kitchen was last used for cooking. Couches and chairs are subordinate to an enormous Macintosh computer equipped with a large color monitor and a Web site that contains numerous pieces of poster art. Yet Posterville is no shrine. It is a never-ending rumination, a workshop where the professor chisels away, restoring old pieces, consulting with potential buyers, checking out new collections and, most of all, ardently advocating poster art as the visual expression of his generation's democracy.
"Posters to the people! That's my motto," says the professor, who also makes a living as a car renovator, a chauffeur and an assorted jack-of-all-trades. "Art? What is art? Art, my friend, is anything you can get away with. Where is Posterville? It's under beds. It's in closets. It's the cousin who got killed in Vietnam in '69, and his parents still have the posters he kept on his wall. I want to help those parents find a buyer for those posters, someone who will honor both that boy who got killed and his love for posters.
"Long after the music is over, the poster lives on. The artist needs a champion. We cannot recapture our youth. My name is not H.G. Wells, and I don't own a time machine. However, you put this poster in front of people who attended the concert and you will get 100 stories--about a joint that someone got high on, about meeting a wife, about an arrest, a party. These posters represent those golden years when we were free in our minds, when we were becoming filled with the food of life, when we were evolving, forming our opinions.
"And these posters speak to that. Sure, there are Deadheads who are lawyers and bankers and every job you can think of. Not everyone agrees on their politics. But music and posters are our international language. These artists drew the face of rock and roll." In making himself Professor Poster, Rusty Goldman, who cites P.T. Barnum as his hero, has taken his generation's spirit of participation to heart. He has created a persona that allows him to control history.
"That was the whole idea, to find what you could do to contribute as a craftsman in your own right," says Kantner. "We didn't want to sit on the sidelines. We wanted to make things happen. After all, we'd been raised by our parents and teachers to believe that in a democracy you could do anything you wanted. You see, the '60s was as much driven by the mainstream civic optimism of the '50s as it was by anything else."
That spirit of democracy reaching the masses is another factor behind the posters' popularity. "For just a few bucks, you can put some nice artwork on your wall," says Cushway. You needn't be a highbrow art lover or an ardent Deadhead or even enamored of any particular political ideology other than the populist voice of rock and roll.
"This is the end, beautiful friend."
--"The End," the Doors
Oddly enough, the ascent of counterculture bands into the larger market spelled the end of the golden age of poster art. Record labels started pouring in money. Arenas got bigger. Venues like the Fillmore closed their doors. The poster's intimate relationship with its audience dissipated. "In a way, the Fillmore era--'66 to '71--brackets the times for both the music and the posters," says author Lemke. David Singer's poster for the closing week of Fillmore West can be purchased from ArtRock for $1,000.
With music becoming far more of a corporate enterprise, the days of freewheeling poster art soon came to a close. Artists commissioned by Helms and Graham recall an easy approval process (in many cases posters went directly to the printer) and no concerns about copyrighted images. All of this began to change in the '70s. "No one was as worried when we were starting out," says Singer.
The '70s ushered in a new era of rock posters that were more sanitized and slick than their psychedelic predecessors. Yet the psychedelic sensibility lived on. The ascent of music videos in the late '70s and early '80s borrowed greatly from the collage-like techniques employed by such artists as Singer. The punk movement also drew heavily on posters to spread the word in much the same way San Francisco promoters had in the mid-'60s. Rejecting the corporate-driven art of the '70s, punk posters returned full circle to the boxing-style format.
In the '90s, another generation began creating vivid imagery for the stuff of bedroom walls. The development of desktop publishing and computer graphics, combined with the continued fracturing of rock from a mass market into a series of niches, spawned a renaissance in poster art. In 1990, 26-year-old Derek Hess, who had studied at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, was booking alternative rock bands into Cleveland's Euclid Tavern. "Disco and arenas had killed posters," he says. "Then we started going back to smaller venues, and the need for posters was reborn." Creating posters that are heavily cartoon-like and incorporating stylized violence and humor into what he calls "two-dimensional reflections of a desensitized culture," Hess aligns himself with the pessimistic, dark view of many of today's youths. "I am attempting to transcend the Pop Culture," he writes on a montage piece of his posters, adding that his work "serves as a direction where we might go."
Frank Kozik, 34, is another contemporary poster artist who grew up in the shadow of such cultural catalysts as the bicentennial mania of the '70s. Like Hess, his work borrows from animation and is satirical in tone. "Hey, look, everybody's a smart-ass these days," says Kevin Plamondon, one of Kozik's business partners. Kozik approaches his work with a pragmatism that is refreshing, sobering and totally lacking in any attempt to collectively alter anyone's destiny. "They're just fucking posters for rock shows," says Kozik. "This isn't a grand social statement. It's entertainment. There's no cosmic meaning to it. We know there's no 'movement.' People are trying to have a bit of an escape."
Maybe that's what posters and rock now mean. Perhaps in 1965, when it was easier to think the world could be changed for the better, collective confrontation with history was more palatable than personal retreat. Today's economy is eternally skittish. AIDS, harsher drugs and increased crime have drastically reduced experimentation. It's simply much more dangerous to be young. No one can foresee whether these times will yield a poster market with as much economic or historic resonance as the psychedelic era had for its contemporaries. Certainly Kozik and Hess, both of whom are given more to ironic distance than to the psychedelic era's headfirst immersion, would downplay any such ambition. But maybe these two artists are only protecting themselves from the very emotional tug of the music they're promoting. No matter how heatedly an artist may disclaim any apparent message, somewhere in the posters and the music bubbles the promise and unpredictability that made rock and roll so optimistic in the first place. "Spending $400 for the poster is just the beginning," says Manzarek. "Maybe then you'll really go psychedelic."
"Now it's dark and I'm alone, but I won't be afraid."
--"In My Room," Beach Boys
Or, maybe, as Grushkin recognized, you'll buy the poster and encounter living proof of the genre's potential for personal and social transformation. In the course of his research, Grushkin hooked up with Judy Bickford, the former owner of what was generally acknowledged as the world's largest collection of Elvis memorabilia. He envisioned encountering "some sort of hip, rocking chick, you know, like Patti Smith." When he arrived, he saw a woman who looked like his mother. But then, when she told him how Elvis had changed her life and that the spirit of rock meant everything to her, Grushkin realized that rock and roll's inherently infectious energy was the core of her passion. Regardless of the artists' advanced techniques, their use of color or any other aesthetic significance, the posters are meant to come alive. They click in perfectly with what Grushkin calls "the dance theater of madness. In seeing that poster as part of your life, you remember your rock and roll roots--your willingness to let go and go with the flow. And maybe, just maybe, you take a less hard and fast view of the world."
Oakland, California-based Joel Drucker writes frequently about popular culture and sports.
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