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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 2)

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

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