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Janis Joplin, The Doors, and Steppenwolf are among the greatest acts in the history of rock and roll. While their music is recycled through movies, college discovery, and radio today, the visual evidence of their prowess and revolutionary zeal hangs on the walls of museums.
To prepare for the Tweed Museum’s Psychedelic Signatures exhibit, featuring 30 of the rarest and most sought after original concert posters, I spoke with several of the original artists. Victor Moscoso, who has five posters in the show, told me the story of the music of that 1960s era and his own artistic journey.
The earliest poster in the exhibit by Moscoso was created for the Family Dog. They were a group of hippies promoting shows and dances for Janis Joplin (“Piece of My Heart,” “Mercedes Benz,” and “Me & Bobby McGee”), Jefferson Airplane (“Somebody to Love,” and “White Rabbit”), and The Grateful Dead at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in 1966. Done in black and white, it has simplistic bubble lettering with a photo of a gargoyle on the top of Notre Dame.
“Oh, that’s my worst poster,” Moscoso said. “I call that my greatest failure. Alright, and the thing about failure is that if you examine your failure you learn a lot. Cuz, here I had gone to Yale, I was teaching at San Francisco Art Institute at the time, direct lithography, the way Toulouse Latrec’s posters were being printed, and I saw these crude posters. First by Alton Kelly for the Family Dog, the original Family Dog, not Chet Helms, but the original Family Dog.”
To explain the concert poster art quickly the one thing you should know is that in 1966 a new artform emerged in California using rock concert advertisements as an outlet for the creative energy springing up all around. The artists who were hired to make the first psychedelic concert posters went on to design most of the album art that followed within a year. At first the posters were crude, but the competitive nature of the artists raised the bar to a new level.
Moscoso said that the first concert poster he saw looked like it was just a bunch of doodles. Chet Helms, a hippie who promoted rock shows and brought Janis Joplin to San Francisco to front Big Brother and the Holding Company, eventually became the head of the Family Dog.
“Although I went to the events, I didn’t think much of the posters,” Moscoso said. “I saw a poster by Wes Wilson, where there is Paul Butterfield (being advertised) and I learned that Chet Helms had picked it out of the back of a magazine. It was originally from an ad for headaches. There’s this guy and he’s got his hands over his head, ya know, sideview, as if he’s in pain. It was very interesting lettering, and I saw it in the doorway of a coffeeshop. That one caught my attention for graphic and design reasons. I looked at it and I said, “hmm how crude, but interesting.” That was my response to Wes Wilson’s poster, which I forget, it is maybe number 5, I forget… So I went to Chet Helms. I went down to the Avalon Ballroom, and showed him my portfolio - and I had an excellent, a real slick portfolio, and so I did Family Dog number 11. That’s how I was going to become, or do a real good poster, ya know, and it stunk. The reason it stunk was because I was trying to make the lettering legible, see, and for all the wrong reasons. Which was what I was taught in school. And um, I was crushed. Here’s this guy, who is self taught, and he did a much better poster than I did. That really bothered me. And not only that, but within a couple of weeks (Stanley) Mouse and (Alton) Kelley, Mouse Studios, came out with the Zig Zag poster. You know, the Zig Zag rolling posters, they made it into a poster with Big Brother (Janis Joplin) headlining and it knocked my socks off. It was obvious to me that something was going on and I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t do another poster for about five months. I thought I was gonna miss the bus.”
The time off gave Moscoso the opportunity to sit back and watch a bourgeoning movement grow.
“Fortunately however, by looking at the work of Wes Wilson, Mouse and Kelley, and they were trucking, they really were you know… Each poster would be better than the previous poster. The nice thing about the posters is you get it, it takes a couple of days to do it, and another couple of days to print it, and then its up and you can see it - and you’d get feedback. The feedback then you can put into your next poster. I had never had a situation where I had gotten the job and the public would see it within a week. That was very, very valuable. Still, like I say, it took me five months till I did another poster, and that one was alright. It was chickens on a unicycle. It’s alright, it wasn’t a total failure.”
Moscoso had a ways to go.
“It wasn’t what I wanted to do yet. It wasn’t what Mouse, Kelley and Wes Wilson were doing. Then I did another one with flowers on it that I got off of music sheets. Like in the old days before phonographs they sold sheet music and sheet music had covers on it… It was usually a couple of pages, and that was a little better. But still, it did not please me very much, and then finally I did the Family Dog logo Indian with swirling eyes. He’s got eyeglasses on and the eyeglasses are swirling, red and blue.”
I own the poster he was describing, but it is not in the Tweed show as it is in somewhat poor condition. A young hippie wrote in pencil at the bottom of mine the Beatle’s lyrics, “Help, I need somebody.”
“That is what I consider my first successful psychedelic poster,” Moscoso said. “At this point now, ya know, I’m in the ballgame. I got a lot of feedback on that one. Which was good because it coincided with how I felt about it, so I knew I was on the right track. Pretty soon after that I started my own poster company so I wouldn’t have to be dependent on Chet Helms or Bill Graham, a fellow Brooklynite, who I knew was a crook. An asshole, but he liked my work. He liked my work, but he didn’t give me any royalties and he only gave you $50 bucks. I figured hell, at least I was getting royalties from the Avalon. So I just kept doing Avalon posters and my Neon Rose posters, which I did at one point, and I was doing two or three posters a week in the winter/spring of 1966 - 67’.”
I told Moscoso I admired that piece.
“Thank you, so here I’m really getting it. The reason I got it was pretty simple, I realized that since the other guys didn’t go to art school, Mouse had gone to art school, but fortunately it didn’t screw him up. I was a good student. So I learned all my lessons well. And all the lessons that I learned in school, like lettering should always be legible, do not use vibrating colors they’re irritating to the eyes, ya know, and stuff like that, was wrong. It was absolutely wrong for these kind of posters. So by reversing everything that I had learned in school, I got it. So on the Big Brother one I’m using a variation of playbill, but I still have to develop my own lettering style. For my next poster, “The Dance of the Five Moons,” I used a lettering I got from a shoe ad called “Smoke.” I’ve seen it in typebooks now that they have, but they call it “Moscoso Psychedelic.” I just copied something and now I get credit for it,” Moscoso said.
The Sparrow was featured in a few of Moscoso’s posters on display in the exhibit at the Tweed. They are much better known by another name that came shortly after those shows.
“The Sparrow became Steppenwolf,” Moscoso said. “I wish it said Steppenwolf then because people don’t know that. That’s John Kay’s group, he was the leader of the band. He then changed it to Steppenwolf, signed a recording contract, and came out with some of the best music of that time, you know. To come out of the area, you know.”
One poster not in the Tweed show by Moscoso that features The Doors and Sparrow had an unplanned visual effect occur when he was told that it flew.
“If you shine red light on it and then you shine blue light on it the lady moves,” Moscoso said. “That’s Annabelle from a film called, “Annabelle’s Butterfly Dance” done by Thomas Edison. It was reproduced in a silent movie book and it was reproduced very small. So when I blew it up you could see the half-tone dots. See, that’s why it looks like that, and then I just put one on top of the other just for the hell of it. A friend of mine said, “Hey, you know, that poster of yours flies.” He had his posters in a hallway with blinking Christmas tree lights. So when he said it moved… Ooh… I think I knew what I did. So I went home and I made a light box which flashed first red, then blue on it, and sure enough, the lady flew. Not only that, but I’m using my illegible lettering, which by now I’ve got down. Now I’m really cooking.”
Moscoso discussed an earlier poster featuring The Doors with the Sparrow poster that is in the Tweed Show.
‘“Break on Through,” oh, that was an early one,” Moscoso said. “That was the first Doors poster that I did. They were an L.A. band and “Break on Through to the Other Side” was the first single, probably off of their first album. It got airplay, in other words, radio play, and so nobody knew who the Doors were in San Francisco. They said hey, put this, “Break on Through to the Other Side,” somewhere in the poster so that people will know who The Doors are. See, nobody knew who the Doors were. Then I just went ahead and did what I felt like doing, you know, and so I put a snowflake in the third eye position on the lady, overprinting and then I put the “Break on Through to the Other Side,” where I felt like. That’s the thing about these things, nobody, nobody; I didn’t have to show a sketch to anybody. I did not have to get approval on this. When I finished the poster I went directly to the printer. Because they were being done so quickly and also, by then the posters were selling very fast.”
The Doors use that lettering in a lot of their album artwork and other imagery, the “Moscoso Psychedelic.”
“Well, that’s alright, what the hell… I’m not gonna sue them for using a lettering,” Moscoso said. “Besides, in cases like that you better have a really good case, because if you go to court and the loser loses, the lawyers win. The losing lawyer gives you his full bill, even though he lost it, and it might have been because of him, but you gotta pay in full. I would love it if I was lousy or missed a date and I was paid in full. It doesn’t work that way for artists. Lawyers make laws and they make money.”
The interview continues with additional photos at www.thefountainheads.com.