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Rocking Memories

Psychedelic posters from San Francisco and South Bay rock shows are more than graphic artifacts--they're big business

By Steve Bjerklie

IN THE HISTORY of rock & roll, the two Northern California Folk-Rock Festivals held in the late springs of 1967 and 1968 at Family Park on the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds barely rate a mention, even though the biggest names in American rock at the time--the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company--headlined the events. There's no movie about the festivals, no live recordings.

The 1968 show featured an especially eclectic lineup, with Doc Watson, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, the Youngbloods and the New Lost City Ramblers all sharing Hendrix's stage. But the event is remembered now chiefly for one of the first American appearances of a new band from England: Led Zeppelin.

The only remaining artifacts of the shows are rare copies of the festivals' advertising handbills and posters. The poster for the 1967 festival, drawn by the Carson-Morris studio, displays acrobatic naked women curling around a matinee-idol photo of Jim Morrison (who, it must be said, looks alarmingly like Val Kilmer in the shot).

The blue, orange and black poster blares the festival's name, location, dates and acts in a pastiche of lettering styles copped from the seminal psychedelic posters drawn by Stanley Mouse, Al Kelley and Rick Griffin for Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom shows in San Francisco.

The piece from 1968, though less colorful and more funkily executed, is more original. Obese lettering oozes around an ovoid drawing of a Hinduesque, raven-haired woman feted by two lovely naked angels. Similar lettering announcing the show dates and site pushes against the angels' bare legs.

The list of band names for the show (at least two of which are misspelled) is so long it's blocked into a paragraph that fills the poster's bottom third. Two features, in addition to the listing of Led Zeppelin, distinguish this poster. Its two colors, red and yellow, are printed on silver-coated paper; and it is one of the only psychedelic-era rock posters drawn by a woman, Linda Segul. (The only other woman drawing posters of note in the early days was Bonnie MacLean, who put together several pieces in 1967­68 for then-husband Bill Graham.)

Today, on the collector's market, a handbill for either show costs $100, probably more. A poster dealer in San Francisco, Artrock, lists a full-size print from the 1967 show for $225. Still, these are bargain prices compared to what collectors will pay for another South Bay poster.

The last time Grant McKinnon, an expert in high-end rock graphics and general manager at S.F. Rock Art & Collectibles, sold an authentic copy of the 1966 poster drawn by Mouse and Kelley for a Jefferson Airplane show at Loser's South, a fondly remembered club on Almaden Road in San Jose, his customer paid $1,500 for the rarity. But poster collectors specializing in the Mouse and Kelley team or in posters featuring the Jefferson Airplane, says McKinnon, "have to have the Loser's poster, which is very hard to find."

But it "isn't even the rarest of South Bay posters," McKinnon adds. "For some of the stuff for early psychedelic garage bands like the Count Five, there might be only one copy left." Indeed, McKinnon himself has hoarded one precious Count Five poster for a San Jose club date in 1966.

Angular, almost artless lettering frames a photo of the band, which was famous for the song "Psychotic Reaction." The bandmembers wear black capes and pose in front of the Winchester Mystery House. The poster, printed on cardboard, was meant to be tacked up on telephone poles.

McKinnon's is the only copy he knows of. It's not for sale. These and a handful of other examples are the South Bay tip of what's become a big, though quiet, Bay Area business: the buying and selling of 1960s and '70s-era rock & roll posters, especially those that exemplify the emergence of psychedelic art as a commercial medium.

COLLECTORS have been part of the scene since almost the beginning--Bill Graham used to tell stories of going around San Francisco on a motorcycle to tack up posters for his Fillmore shows on poles and in shop windows, only to see collectors follow behind yanking them down. Lately, however, the market, on low simmer for years, has heated up.

Prices for poster art of all kinds are climbing rapidly, but the combination of increasing disposable income for baby boomers, strong collector interest in Europe and Japan, and the end-of-an-era death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 has pushed market prices for both original psychedelic-era pieces and new stuff higher than ever. Posters bought 30 years ago in record stores for a couple of bucks and handbills picked up for free (they were given away at the Fillmore) now bring hundreds of dollars in some cases.

The older posters, though, are much more than valuable, colorful graphic images. They are visual, tactile artifacts of an age, of a style, of a way of living in the world that once beckoned legions of kids to head to California for the Summer of Love and the Age of Aquarius.

The art swirls, startles, stuns. Old iconic images--jesters, John Wilkes Booth, the Titanic going down, Michelangelo's Adam reaching his finger out to God--got appropriated by Haight-Ashbury artists and crowded by them with free-for-all lettering and new cannabis-oriented iconography.

The old became the new, which was exactly the counterculture's point. Borders between what was happening on stage with the music and on the walls with light shows and on paper with the posters were useless to establish; in psychedelia's golden age, 1966­68, they all became each other.

The posters themselves are like postage stamps from the dance halls. Thumb through a pile of classic pieces, and dozens of legendary nights spring back to life: The Grateful Dead sharing a stage in San Francisco with the Miles Davis Quintet; a New Year's Eve bill featuring the Jefferson Airplane, the Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service together at Winterland; the kinetic mind-jolt of the 1967 San Jose Be-In, symbolized by a woman's flailing arms and bare, twisting torso, printed in electrified red on smoky blue.

History doesn't just live in the old posters, it dances. Wildly. With Bill Graham commissioning new art for his weekly Fillmore (and then Fillmore West/Winterland) shows from February 1966 until July 1971, and the collective-managed Avalon Ballroom doing the same for its 1966­68 weekly shows, San Francisco necessarily became the center of the psychedelic poster consciousness.

VIRTUALLY ALL of the finest '60s-era work by the best of the poster artists, including Mouse/Kelley, Griffin, Wes Wilson and Victor Moscoso, was for San Francisco events, though each of these artists contributed posters for shows in other locales.

But the South Bay also produced collectible, and now valuable, poster art. In addition to the two Folk-Rock Festival pieces and a few Loser's South posters, graphic art resulted from occasional shows produced at the San Jose Civic Auditorium, the National Guard Armory in San Bruno and the regular shows held in 1967 and 1968 at the Continental Ballroom in Santa Clara.

Several of the big San Francisco acts--the Dead, Airplane and Big Brother--and South Bay bands such as the Chocolate Watchband and Mojo Men played the Continental for partisan South Bay crowds too loyal to the region to journey north.

Later, after closing Fillmore West (and Fillmore East in New York), Graham's company, Bill Graham Presents (BGP), occasionally commissioned new posters for special shows. These posters weren't for advertising purposes but for sale to show-goers--"vanity" posters, as they're called in the trade. BGP-produced appearances by the Grateful Dead seemed to generate most of them, and some have become quite valuable.

A 1980 poster for a series of Dead shows at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, sold in the lobby for $20, now commands $950. After Garcia's death, the $1,000 line was quickly broached by "Blue Rose," a vanity poster drawn by Mouse/Kelley for the closing of Winterland in 1978 (a BGP show), and by the brilliant, disturbing "Trip or Freak" graphic from 1967, a collaborative effort by Mouse, Kelley and Rick Griffin featuring a leering image of Lon Chaney in full Phantom of the Opera makeup.

Prices for nearly all Grateful Dead poster collectibles--the Philip Garris owl-and-skull tombstone tableau for a 1976 BGP Grateful Dead/Who show at the Oakland Coliseum; the striking wing-and-pyramid Mouse/Kelley poster for the Dead's series of 1978 shows in Egypt; and, of course, FD No. 26, the poster Mouse and Kelley prepared for the Avalon Ballroom in 1966 that associated the skull-and-roses icon with the Grateful Dead for the first time--are in the stratosphere.

The market rides supply and demand, of course. While BGP and the Avalon may have printed thick editions of their posters, McKinnon points out that more regional venues like the Continental could not afford to print in volume and clubs like Loser's South often could afford to print only postcard-size handbills. That puts a premium on certain South Bay pieces--if buyers can be found.

"The truth is, there are a lot more Mouse/Kelley collectors and Jefferson Airplane collectors than there are collectors interested in posters from only San Jose or the Peninsula," McKinnon says. "The Mouse/Kelley and Airplane collectors are the ones who have driven up the price for the Airplane Loser's South poster. But the South Bay stuff shouldn't be ignored. Myself, I'm interested in any poster from down there with the Count Five or the other crazed San Jose garage bands on it."

Even so, it's fair to ask, What are the real values of these '60s posters? They are, after all, prints, and hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of copies were originally printed. Even in the early days of the San Francisco rock & roll ballroom scene, from which concert promoters all around the Bay Area took their cues, print runs were relatively high.

On the original artwork for the poster BG No. 32, a Fillmore show in October 1966 headlined by the Dead, artist Wes Wilson penciled "2500m" in the margin to remind the pressman to run 2,500 copies of the black-and-white poster, featuring a photo of Garcia surrounded by Wilson's bulbous lettering.

Later posters were printed in greater quantities. Stacks of them were kept in storage by Graham and the "chief executive" (if he can be called such) of the Family Dog collective that ran the Avalon: Chet Helms.

Moreover, most of the posters were reprinted by BGP and the Family Dog, the reprint editions often numbering in the tens of thousands. Reprints bring a lower price, of course, than first editions, but only when a reprint is distinguishable from an original (both BGP and the Family Dog clearly designated their authorized reprints as such).

BGP still owns the print negatives to most of the posters for shows the company has produced since 1966, which is to say that if it chose to, BGP could reprint again, though the company's executive in charge of posters and archives, Jerry Pompili, claims he won't. Unsurprisingly, the choicest posters have been not only reprinted, but bootlegged as well, often by extremely good counterfeiters.

THIRTY YEARS after the golden era of the psychedelic rock poster in the Bay Area, posters still available for sale to collectors and souvenir buyers consist mostly of a sloppy pile of originals, reprints, bootlegs and out-and-out fakes.

"What it all comes down to is that you have nothing but someone's word that a poster is original and not a reprint or a fake," patiently explains Jorn Weigelt, a San Mateo dealer in fine-art posters.

Last November, Weigelt's firm, The Poster Connection, hosted the first auction in the Bay Area of collectible poster art. Inside the San Francisco Chinatown Holiday Inn, collectors and the curious bid on hundreds of rare fin de siecle and early-20th-century display art.

"You are dependent on the dealer," continues Weigelt. "I mean, how would you know? Why would you know? And the dealers--just because someone's a dealer doesn't mean they know either."

He says that fakes have been a problem in the fine-art market. "There are a lot of Lautrecs hanging in people's living rooms that they paid $10,000 for. They look real, but aren't." A new organization, the International Vintage Poster Dealers Association, was incorporated last month; one of its central purposes is to deal with fakes. "The organization will provide dealers with an opportunity to share information," comments Weigelt.

Does he think San Francisco and South Bay rock posters will develop into a fine-art market? "Perhaps. But the market has to be clean. If there's a lot of uncertainty about what's real and what isn't ... the market may not develop but remain a hobby for enthusiasts. Long-lasting markets get that way when everyone's sure of what they're buying."

But, as Weigelt points out, there's no way to be sure. Fakes and bootlegs worry McKinnon, too, because they dilute the market. "The major dealers don't sell bootlegs or reprints as originals," he comments. "They'll always come back to haunt you."

He says that unlike century-old pieces, a rock & roll poster reprint can rarley, for now, sneak past an expert as an original. "There's still a lot of knowledge around from people who have been part of the poster scene since the beginning. The information about color variations in press runs and when the posters were actually printed is still available."

He points out that the inks used to print the original posters 30 years ago were made of different elements than today's inks and that they fade differently. Further insurance against fakes is provided by the first volume of The Collector's Guide to Psychedelic Rock Concert Posters, Postcards and Handbills: 1965­1973 by Eric King, which focuses on BGP and Family Dog posters as well as on the famed "Neon Rose" series of posters drawn by Victor Moscoso for the Matrix nightclub in San Francisco.

The King book describes poster issues and editions, sizes, inks, paper quality and what to look for in reprints and bootlegs. It and the The Art of Rock, by Paul Grushkin, are the essential reference books for the genre.

"But fakes are out there," Mc-Kinnon cautions. "A few years ago I saw copies of BG No. 105"--Rick Griffin's famous "Flying Eyeball" poster for a series of amazing 1968 BGP shows at San Francisco's Fillmore and Winterland auditoriums featuring Albert King, John Mayall and Jimi Hendrix--"for sale on Haight Street for $5­$10. Now, I knew those had to be fakes. It's a very valuable poster.

"But they were really good fakes; they looked just like the second printing. The only way you could tell was from two tiny thumb prints on the edges, something only an expert or real dealer would look for. The people who thought they were getting a deal on that poster just got burned."

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From the April 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro

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