Paul Grushkin's "The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk" is a visual history of rock 'n' roll told through 2,000 images, 1,500 of them full color. It starts in the early '50s with basic, carnival-style R&B posters, advances to the golden age of the psychedelic poster in the late '60s and ends with the angular punk posters of the late '70s and early '80s.
Picking it up may produce a hernia. At just under 10 pounds and 516 thick pages, "The Art of Rock" is probably the heaviest book of the season.
This is the first time rock 'n' roll ever got an art book. Sure, Rolling Stone Press has done big books on the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Dylan, and there have been some expensive projects aimed at baby-boomers with too much disposable income. But Grushkin's book, which took four years and half a million of Abbeville Press' dollars to complete, is the most sumptuous rock art project yet. And yes, at $85 a copy, Abbeville will probably be getting its money back soon.
The book is much more than just a pretty face. Grushkin's extensive text, much of it in the form of oral history, does an excellent job of capturing the history and the spirit of rock 'n' roll as it developed over three decades -- and the author hopes "The Art of Rock" provides readers with the same "flashback" effect he discovered putting it together.
"People start turning the pages and they suddenly say, 'Oh my God! I went to that show.' I still take time trips with this book. I look at a poster and remember bringing blankets and pillows to the Fillmore and nestling in like a cave bear for a rock 'n' roll concert."
Flashbacks will be particularly frequent for folks who lived on the West Coast between 1965 and 1975. "The Art of Rock" is heavily weighted toward that coast; Grushkin is the former director of the Bay Area Music Archives, and is currently archivist for Bill Graham Presents. But it's not just regional bias, he argues: Historically, California has been the center of rock poster activity, from the original production to the collecting to the archival process.
Putting the book together, Grushkin says, "We looked at 15,000 pieces of poster art, shot 5,000 on film and chose almost 2,000. But we were also bound by the fact of what the collectors have. Rock 'n' roll is such a folk-art science: You hear A's got some and A turns you on to B and then everybody begins to show you the map of the collecting world, including the promoters themselves.
"But even with all that art, people are coming up to me today showing me posters I've never seen. As Henry Adams said, education keeps going on."
What makes "The Art of Rock" especially interesting is its overview of the music's early days, when posters, usually slapped together in print shops, promoted R&B, blues, gospel and, eventually, rock 'n' roll. From 1955 to 1965, the major style was "boxing," with the emphasis on artists' names in letters, either HUGE ONES (meant to be read from a block away, or driving by) or row after row of acts-and-their-hits (for the cumulative effect). Later, promotional photos would be included, space permitting, and it's astonishing to see some of those early shows bringing so many legendary figures under single roofs.
The promoters' goal, of course, was to get the word out on the streets; radio and newspaper ads were seldom available, much less affordable, so posters and fliers were the only effective advertising for eclectic or emerging genres. Their intent was functional, rather than esthetic. In fact, one can see such posters' descendants in Washington along the "Talking Drum" network -- major thoroughfares whose telephone poles and trees are cluttered with "supercharged color" posters for various go-go and reggae shows.
"They create subliminal multiple impressions," Grushkin explains of those often garish posters. He singles out Baltimore's Globe Poster Co. for "revolutionizing" the rock poster some 30 years ago. "Nobody could do silk-screen like Globe, especially when they got into fluorescent ink. They could create a poster that would just turn a person around, stop him in his tracks. Block after block of these chartreuse or bright lemon things ... they would just glitter on the post.
"There's a real art to that and Globe is extremely proud of what they do. There's no shame, even though it's almost offensive. That you could make something so bright and garish and gaudy and do it block after block after block on a city street! It's almost like visual pollution, but it makes an impression. I asked Charles Tilghman, the great West Coast printer, 'What's your idea of a good poster?' And he said: 'You can be driving in your car going up the street and you should be able to look back over your shoulder to the end of the block and see the poster and be able to tell who's playing on Saturday night.' "
Some die-hard fans might have kept these early posters and fliers as mementos of particular shows, but they were hardly collectible, which is why the market for older posters is much the same as for original singles from that era. Still, like the music itself, rock poster art was changing by the late '60s, slowly moving away from the purely functional to the purely artistic.
"A lot of it was in the physical appreciation of the poster," Grushkin explains. You could simply stand and look at the early posters, but with psychedelic ones, "you almost had to follow the movement of the letter forms with your body -- and people took the posters into their homes for the first time. I'm not sure you'd want to take a James Brown poster into your home. Now we might, because we're reverential about that period, but not in its day. But in its day the psychedelic poster went straight into your living room."
As anyone who was in college then might recall, rock posters soon took the place of wallpaper in many young people's homes. "Poster art was never the same afterwards, once that process of real human connection with the art began," Grushkin says. There had been poster manias before -- the French impressionists, the Belle Epoque of Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1800s, and later in the 1930s. "But for the first time here in America, kaboom, there's a new poster art form and it's psychedelic. And it wiped everything else out."
The '60s was a time when commercial art and fine art were already meeting. Artists like Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, John Van Hamersveld, Carl Lundgren and David Sawyer (all West Coast-based) and Detroit's Gary Grimshaw were much admired -- and much copied. The emerging poster-art movement was validated by a 1967 Life cover story that helped turn some of the Haight-Ashbury poster artists into cult figures.
The psychedelic posters had started out with the same basic function as their predecessors, to inform the public about particular shows, but soon they became tied to particular communities and to specific venues like San Francisco's Fillmore and Avalon dance halls, where the bills were as eclectic as some of the earlier rock 'n' roll caravans. Grushkin, who moved to San Francisco in 1969, recounts some of the clashes between poster artists and Bill Graham over the readability of those posters. To the artists, the object was no longer mere promotion; it was celebration and community.
Indeed, there was a visual explosion that had connections, some quite literal, to the drug culture of the times. As Grushkin describes it, there was an innocent, often playful and irreverent spirit, a thirst for colors that breathed, for lettering that had the sensuous curves and liquid gyrations of dance, a mood of edgelessness, of expanding in all directions.
In his expansive text, Grushkin recounts both the dawning of an awareness that something was going on in the poster world -- early on, both the Avalon and the Fillmore started numbering posters in series -- and collectors' habit of acquiring them before the tacks had settled into the walls. Ultimately, that made things a lot easier when he started putting "The Art of Rock" together. "I just went to all the collectors and said 'Show me your best.' "
Many of the posters have achieved iconic status and originals from the golden age (1966-1969) are particularly collectible. "The value per piece now on many things that were printed or sold for $5 is many hundreds of dollars, and some go for as high as $10,000," Grushkin says. "And original art by Kelley, Mouse or Griffin can go as high as $25,000."
Not surprisingly, the Grateful Dead have inspired more rock posters than any other band. Grushkin also wrote "Grateful Dead: The Official Book of the Dead Heads," so he's particularly close to this subject. "No one understands why the Dead are what they are and the posters are equally" -- he searches unsuccessfully for the right word -- "... unexplainable.
"With a lot of other bands, you look at them and you know why they are what they are, and even their poster art is very predictable. But the Dead aren't predictable, which is why there are so many Grateful Dead posters across time and across the country. Everybody has tried to set their hand to a Grateful Dead poster."
Grushkin spent a lot of time interviewing the major poster artists -- "all of whom," he says, "have strong feelings about their lives and times in relationship to poster art." One of the things they talked about was the change that occurred in the early '70s, when poster art, like rock 'n' roll, became increasingly mainstream.
"By the end of the '70s, everybody got so damn slick and good at what they were doing," Grushkin says. "Jerry Garcia, who's quite an intellect as well as a musician, took a look at this book and said, 'You've got to have chops, but you've also got to have soul.' Certainly by the '70s everybody got the chops, the technical proficiency, down, but it didn't have that raw, kick-out-the-jams feel."
Then came the bracing slap of punk. Punk posters, often black-and-white, cut-and-paste jobs that were photocopied rather than printed, echoed the origins of the rock poster, emphasizing stark type and imagery (though with a nastier edge). They also tended to be quickly deployed and seldom collected. As with the music, the idea was that anyone could do it, and once again, California led the way.
Unfortunately, even as rock 'n' roll continues to expand, the world of rock poster art is somewhat in stasis today. True, there are occasional promotional posters -- the generic kind sold by bands along their tour routes -- but the only real vitality is on the independent rock front, where the "promote yourself" ethic still reigns.
"Exclusive of the punkers and new wavers, it's been a while since promoters really felt the need to commission posters to sell out shows," Grushkin says wistfully. "What you need is a good display ad and good radio time. But rock madness keeps welling up, and there's always going to be some form of poster art. Now the emphasis is on laminate backstage passes, and artists are trying to establish those old Fillmore and Avalon kinds of connections."
There's a section of the book on those passes, including a Grateful Dead pass from their concert at the Egyptian Pyramids in 1976. In Arabic it says "Access All Areas" -- and in a way, that's what Grushkin's memorable book does as well.