Alton Kelley, 68; Graphic Artist With a Flair for the Psychedelic

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Alton Kelley, 68, a graphic artist whose mind-blowing posters and album covers for the Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company and legendary San Francisco concert halls ushered in the psychedelic rock-and-roll era, died June 1 of complications of osteoporosis at his home in Petaluma, Calif.

Mr. Kelley, with his life-long collaborator, Stanley "Mouse" Miller, created some of the most distinctive and memorable images in rock music, including the famous skull-and-roses emblem for the Grateful Dead and the "Girl With Green Hair" poster that advertised a concert at the Avalon Ballroom.

His work, with its colorful swirls, spiral designs and exaggerated hand-drawn lettering, plastered telephone poles, head-shop windows and vacant buildings in San Francisco in the 1960s. The handbills cost about $5 to print and were given away at the end of concerts. They now sell for tens of thousands of dollars to art collectors who compare them to the belle epoque art of such masters as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha.

Mr. Kelley and Miller scored their first big hit with a 1966 poster advertising a concert of Big Brother & the Holding Company and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. The art was based on the logo of the Zig-Zag cigarette rolling-paper company.

"When Stanley and I did that poster, we got really paranoid," Mr. Kelley said. "We figured, 'Oh no. Now they know we smoke dope!' And we took what little pot we had and flushed it down the toilet. But we wanted to create something that was visual and would make people stop in the streets and read and figure it out. It worked like a charm."

The word on the streets of San Francisco at the time was that if you could not read the poster, you should not go to the concert, said rock historian Paul Grushkin, who wrote "The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk" (1987).

"This was a time in America when the Beat Generation still ruled and you had people left over like Allen Ginsberg while we morphed into the era of the Merry Pranksters," Grushkin said. Mr. Kelley "was one of 10 people in San Francisco who were about to usher in the hippie times. . . . It wasn't down and coffee-driven and moody and boozy like the Beats. It was all such an innocent and happy time -- it was a giggle."

Mr. Kelley, a native of Houlton, Maine, who had worked as a mechanic in a helicopter factory in Connecticut, raced motorcycles and drew cartoons of hot rods before he moved to San Francisco in 1964. He lived in a group house in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and in the summer moved to Virginia City, Nev., where he helped stage electric folk concerts at the Red Dog Saloon, a dance hall that became famous for its freewheeling scene of drugged-out musicians in Western costume.

After he returned to San Francisco months later, Mr. Kelley and others formed the Family Dog, an enterprise that set up weekend concerts with dancing and light shows, featuring local bands such as Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish and the Grateful Dead.

A competing promoter, Bill Graham, hosted concerts at the Fillmore West auditorium; the Family Dog ran its concerts at the Avalon Ballroom.

With Miller's collaborations, the two were "riffing off each other's giggle," they said, poring over art books in the public library and freely appropriating images and concepts from history and commerce.

"Stanley and I had no idea what we were doing," Mr. Kelley told the San Francisco Chronicle's Joel Selvin in 2007. "But we went ahead and looked at American Indian stuff, Chinese stuff, art nouveau, art deco, modern, Bauhaus -- whatever. We were stunned by what we found and what we were able to do. We had free rein to just go graphically crazy."

Soon enough, reporters who were trying to divine the meaning behind the "Summer of Love" found him. Mr. Kelley, Miller, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin and Wes Wilson were named by Life magazine in September 1967 as the seminal poster artists of the era, or the "phantasmagoria of best-selling avant-garde."

Musicians including Pete Townshend and Mick Jagger sought out the pair, and Mr. Kelley moved into album art, designing six Grateful Dead album covers, the Pegasus image for Steve Miller's 1977 album "Book of Dreams" and three Journey albums in the late 1970s.

He also drew several posters in 1966 for bluesman Bo Diddley, who died yesterday. [Story, Page A1.]

Corporations eventually took over the rock-and-roll music scene. Mr. Kelley worked for a few years on album covers, then returned to an earlier love, hot rods. He illustrated the cars in fine-art oil paintings, then sold the images for T-shirts and other merchandise.

Survivors include his wife, Marguerite Trousdale Kelley of Petaluma; three children; his mother; a sister; and two grandchildren.

In 2007, the 40th anniversary of the "Summer of Love," Mr. Kelley said that people have forgotten how the 1960s sparked an era of creativity by cracking open the uptight culture that came out of the 1950s. Unfortunately, he said, the whimsical tenor of the mid-1960s turned darker as more young people flooded into the San Francisco Bay area. "By 1968, it had pretty much gone to hell with all religious nuts coming, the politicos, the junkies, dope dealers, it really kinda went crazy. Then everyone got out of town," he said.

"But those first years, '65, '66, '67, it was really a great neighborhood, the Haight-Ashbury," Mr. Kelley told Selvin. "Everybody knew everybody. It was really fun. Everybody was really enjoying themselves. . . . For that short period of time there, it was really fun and we had a helluva good time. That was a long-running party."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company