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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 5)

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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