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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 3)

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.

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).

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