In Essence Is Perfection . . .
—Don Lewis, The City of San Francisco Oracle (a poem next to a map with directions to the Human Be-In)
Everything we see is a transmission of light. The eyes are messengers that receive light and send it to the brain in the form of colors and shapes. They contain almost three-quarters of our bodies’ sense receptors. That’s a lot to pound away at with intense visual imagery. Light was manipulated in every way imaginable to blast all 70% of the body’s sense receptors with the equivalent force that amplified feedback walloped the eardrums.
Rock poster artist Victor Moscoso said, “After all, musicians were turning their amps all the way up so that you’d be deaf for a week, and it was cool. I would just turn the color up as high as I could so I could blind you: ‘Whoa! What’s that?’”
Radiant, sparkling light in the most intense colors possible was the antidote to the drabness that signified all things conventional and depressing. Gray suits. Military olive drab. Concrete buildings. Urban sprawl. Industrial wastelands. Black and dingy white newspapers delivering the day’s bad trips. The dirty snow and gray skies of big-city Northeast and Midwest winters. The black-and-white television with pictures in every shade of gray that every teenager and twenty-something had grown up watching. Light was life, light was joy, light was music made visible.
Anything with a shiny, reflective surface magnified and spread light, from glass beads to peacock feathers. In most hippie houses you could find cut glass prism ornaments hanging in the windows to catch the sun and throw tiny rainbows into the rooms. Prisms and rainbow imagery were everywhere: embroidered on jeans, painted on walls, embedded in stained glass. Perhaps the pot of gold at rainbow’s end was the Golden Gate at Land’s End in San Francisco. Communes were named Rainbow. Kids were named Rainbow. Dogs and cats were named Rainbow. In a song on their 1967 psychedelic album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Rolling Stones described an orgasmic rainbow chick in “She Comes in Colors.”
One potent weapon for breaking the sight barrier was fluorescent paint in eye-jolting colors, most often called by its brand name, Day-Glo. Liquid shades of chartreuse, million-watt orange, magenta, stoplight yellow, and purple were splashed on everything from clothing to concert posters to skin. They glowed wildly under the blacklights, fluorescent lamps encased in bluey-purple bulbs known as “Wood’s glass,” featured at the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms and some smaller clubs. At first the ballrooms provided the stuff for body painting. There was always a section of the hall where people dabbed the paint on each other, the better to dance under the blacklights as kinetic works of art. Alexandra Jacopetti explained to me about the body painting, “Painting your body with light, and then painting your clothes with color, sometimes the colors from other countries. The originality of design and the exuberance of color were primary.”
Besides the paint, blacklights reflected off anything white, including eyeballs and teeth, turning everyone into psychedelic monsters. Even darkness itself became psychedelic; blacklights rendered dark rooms and non-reflective surfaces a weird blue-violet color rather than pitch black.
Layered on top of the blacklights, an extremely bright, rapidly blinking strobe light would intermittently flare up. When you danced under its machine-gun fire, your movements appeared to be jerky and broken up, like an animated film strip running a little too slowly. To magnify the effect, a large ball covered with tiny mirrors dangled and twirled from the Fillmore’s ceiling, reflecting the light and showering the dancers with hundreds of tiny, twinkling stars.
Strobes took some getting used to. They were as dazzling as a camera flash and could be quite disorienting, especially on top of everything else going on. Not everyone flocked to their freaky flashes like so many dizzy moths. Open Theater Founder Roland Jacopetti recalled to me one of the first to grace a public event. “There was a strobe light at The Trips Festival, a huge strobe light. I’d been warned not to look directly into it. There was one girl looking directly into the strobe, just mesmerized and catatonic.” Geoff Muldaur, who performed at both the Avalon and the Fillmore with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band said to me, “The first concert at the Avalon was with Big Brother [and the Holding Company]. I had them turn off the strobe light because it freaked me out. I was a juice head and everyone else was looking at their palms and going, ‘oo ahh.’” Muddy Waters succinctly described similar lights at New York City’s Electric Circus as “blinking blinking jiving shit.”
Blacklights, strobes and fluorescent body paint helped make the audience into performance art. However, the main visual events, the light shows, were often projected right onto the musicians, sometimes virtually obliterating any clear view of the bands and turning them into just one more part of the whole gestalt. This could be disconcerting to musicians who were accustomed to putting on a show and being watched. However, it was business-as-usual for the early San Francisco bands. According to light show artist Bill Ham, The Grateful Dead at one point painted their amps white to act as screens for the projections.
Light shows didn’t explode forth fully formed at rock concerts. A number of Bay Area artists had been experimenting with overhead, film and slide projectors before the full marriage of music and imagery was sealed at the ballrooms. In 1964, Roland and Alexandra Jacopetti created a performance, “Revelations,” first in an attic and then at their Open Theater in Berkeley (also the site of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s first gig). They projected films and images onto nude dancers while Roland read from the “Book of Revelations” in the Bible.
Roland Jacopetti told me, “We lived in Victorian house in Berkeley. We asked the landlord if we could use the attic. He didn’t even charge us rent for it. You could buy interesting projectors for next to nothing at thrift shops and military surplus shops. We would project painted images. By today’s standards it was extremely primitive. It was done with multiple projectors and tape recorders.” The first movie they used was an animated film produced by the Scott Paper Company that had been shown to an entire generation of elementary schoolgirls to teach them about menstruation. (I saw it along with my wincing female classmates—no boys allowed—in fifth grade. We all had to get permission notes from home. Several girls whose parents objected were made to leave the room before the movie was shown.)
“One evening when we were playing someone walked in front of projected image. I said “wait a minute. Do that again. Let’s see how this looks on skin. She lifted her shirt. Then we projected onto naked bodies and called it ‘Revelations.’”
Alexanda Jacopetti, called “Rain” at the time, said, “People would sooner or later strip off their clothes and would pick up filmy drapes and the projejctions would go through the filmy fabric—you couldn’t see the fabric, but see the movement on the skin—you felt clothed in the imagery—so if you were naked for the first time in a non-sexual but sensual situation, you could protect yourself. For me, it was a political act of de-mystifying the body of standing naked in front of one’s peers and being transparent—not being afraid to bee seen. It was fabulously transformative for the people who did that.” “Revelations” was featured in a photo spread in the March, 1966 issue of Playboy
“One of us said ‘We need a theater.’ There was a vacant building next to Elmwood Theater. We put together The Open Theater and Gallery. We did a play with projections by Elias Romero, one of the grandfathers of light shows. A lot of light show people came to work with us, such as Ben Van Meter. We presented Stuart Brand’s [one Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, a Trips Festival Organizer, and later founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue] ‘Sensorium’ with a show called ‘America Needs Indians.’” Big Brother and The Holding Company’s first advertised show which was open to the public was at The Open Theater.
Meanwhile, Bill Ham was experimenting with light shows at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, where the Charlatans and Big Brother and the Holding Company were rocking the rafters as a precursor to the San Francisco ballroom scene. These pioneers and others created an art form that became an institution at Bay Area rock concerts, and soon there were companies a-plenty to supply them: Holy See, Headlights, Garden of Delights, Dr. Zarkov, The Brotherhood of Light, Heavy Water, San Francisco, and Lightworks were some of the outfits. The primary light show imagery consisted of undulating, brightly colored liquid blobs. The artists created the effect by dropping oil-based paints into concave clock faces full of water. These were set on overhead projectors that flashed the images onto the walls behind the bands and onto the bands themselves. The flashes were coordinated with the rhythms of the music. The technique had been initially developed by a prof at San Francisco State University who had studied Stravinsky’s use of light and music for the staging of The Rites of Spring. (38) Some light show companies layered films, slides and images from one or more projectors onto these kaleidoscopic petri dish forms. Standard imagery included dancing nude hippie chicks with bouncing breasts, marijuana leaves, the Zig-Zag cigarette papers guy, peace signs, couples entwined in tantric sexual embraces and hippie children running around in fields of flowers. Otherwise, there might be wonderfully creative and offbeat imagery that appealed to the light show artists’ sensibilities at the moment. Some artwork was improvised on the spot to reflect what was happening in the hall.
Said Chet Helms, “What was unique about the San Francisco light shows was the intimate coordination with the music, the fact that it was a performance that was rhythmic and coordinated with the music, virtually a harmonic on the music, as opposed to being simply colorful lights going on in the background.”
We thought these creative, improvised and often spontaneous shows would last as long as rock music, but all too soon the lights went out. Rock show light effects at stadium concerts and the like have since become computerized. But there was a quality about those early light shows, accomplished with school audio-visual equipment, clock faces and often hand-painted images that was pure, let-there-be-light creation touched by the hand of the divine.
Bright colors in general nourished psychedelic sight. The conventional arbiters of good taste dictated neutrals and muted tones. This was yet more false idols to be smashed to smithereens beneath feet dancing to a different drummer’s beat. Some colors especially flew in the face of all things dreary and conformist. Purple was a particularly popular color, so utterly foreign to the conventional palette. It turned up everywhere from walls to stockings to songs, such as “Purple Haze,” by Jimi Hendrix to the band named Deep Purple.
One of the longest and happiest marriages between sixties art and music was the concert posters. Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company commented to me, “I truly believe when the music of the psychedelic era is forgotten, the art will be remembered. The posters will be as important as those of Toulouse-Lautrec. The art will live. The painting means more than the music.”
The concert posters generated enormous excitement and enthusiasm. People waited with great anticipation each week to see the new Fillmore and Avalon posters. Bay Area hippies could name the early major poster artists, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin, as easily as they could rattle off the names of Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. The artists worked in a creative frenzy. Band’s schedules were often moving targets and the artists often had less than a weeks’ notice in which to produce a new poster. However, the artists never realized the salaries that bands would achieve. Throughout the Sixties, one hundred dollars per poster was top dollar for an artist. If the line-up of bands changed that included carefully re-lettering the work. Lee Conklin told me that he once asked Bill Graham for some extra money to re-letter a poster. Graham paid him, then never hired him again.
Rock posters, and small handbills featuring their designs, were the coolest wall decorations going on. The walls of my bedroom were plastered with them, carelessly scotch-taped or thumb-tacked in place. At first, the only way to get a poster or a handbill was from the venue or by copping one from wherever they happened to be posted or handed out. In the early days, after every show at the Fillmore you’d get a free poster for next week’s gig as you headed out the door. The first Avalon posters were printed in runs of three hundred and posted in Haight Street shop windows and other hippie locales. Helms started reproducing them for sale about a year after the concerts began. Poster collector Ron Schaeffer remembers that the first posters for sale were at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967. Soon you could buy reproductions for a dollar in The Print Mint on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and Haight Street. Today, even the second and third printings of these repros are worth hundreds of dollars.
The posters often featured highly saturated hues of complementary colors (two opposing shades on the color wheel) rubbing up next to each other: purple and yellow, orange and blue, red and green. Placing such opposites side-by-side caused them to heighten each color’s intensity and made images appear to buzz.
Victor Moscoso said, “You’d use as many vibrating colors as you possibly could. You’d make every edge a vibrating edge.” The effect was especially eye-popping when you attempted to read highly challenging lettering. That was part of the posters’ magic.
Perhaps the most enduring image is the skeleton adorned with roses that Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse used for a Grateful Dead gig at the Avalon. They found the black-and-white illustration by Edmund Sullivan in the San Francisco Public Library, accompanying a quatrain from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Mouse and Kelley added color and a few decorations, and a century later the flower that had once blown forever came back to life as a logo of sorts for The Grateful Dead.
Soon, every small club, every dance, and every gig in the Bay Area featured flyers or handbills with psychedelic drawings and lettering. Hundreds of artists mimicked the masters, creating a style that translated to all sorts of artwork.
Myself and many other aspiring artists copied the style and lettering of the posters. Linda Bacon said, “The poster artists were the reason I ended up dong art. I hadn’t known a whole lot of artists until I met the the poster artists. You knew them and could go to their studios and see how they did it. It was my introduction to what real artists do. I was a wannabe.” I would draw on Day-Glo-colored paper and would create images of whacked-out wizards. The primary drawing tool of the time was the rapidograph pen. Virtually all of us doing art used the technical drawing pen with various sized nibs that were interchangeable on the pen. They drew wonderfully consistent lines in ink that the pen could draw into itself when you stuck it in a bottle of ink and turned the knob on the end. Those pens leaked ink around the nib and you had to stick toilet paper around it to absorb the leaks. The nibs clogged up constantly. But oh, they were wondrous drawing instruments.
Record album covers provided two sides of a twelve-and-a-half inch square for artists and designers to go as wild as the record companies would let ‘em. Album cover art ranged from R. Crumb’s brilliant cartoon design for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills (Sam Andrew told me, “The Black Panthers tried to get our record, Cheap Thrills, banned in Florida because of the Black Mammy on it. They hated it. They had a point, especially in a place like Florida.”) to the stunning black-and-white pen-and-ink drawing and photo collage by Klaus Voormann on The Beatles’ Revolver. Some album covers utilized light show effects, such as Cream’s Day-Glo Disraeli Gears and silver foil Wheels of Fire covers. Generally, record companies insisted that the lettering had to be readable. However, the title of the Steve Miller Band’s Children of the Future album is famously illegible. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band featured one of the first gatefold sleeves, a square of thin cardboard attached to the album cover whose existence was solely for designers to embellish with pictures and writing. Double albums added yet another square for decorative mileage. Donovan’s A Gift From a Flower to A Garden was completely over the rainbow: not only did the records come in a purple box decorated with colorful photographs, but the package included sheets of brightly colored paper with the song lyrics illustrated with line drawings.
Decorate! Adorn! Turn sound equipment and musical instruments into unique works of art! Musicians covered their amps with tie-dyed fabric. The bass drumhead, the part of a drum kit that formerly featured the band’s name in prosaic lettering, was now often encrusted with psychedelic art. When I was fifteen I was hired, for ten bucks, to paint the drumhead for the Bay Area group, The Transatlantic Railroad. I labored for several weeks creating a Middle Earth-ish wizard with flowing robes and a long beard holding up the band’s name inscribed in ornate letters. Pleased with the results, the band gave me a five-dollar bonus.
Guitars were yet another canvas for creative visuals. Manufacturers had already rendered them flashy. Electric guitars had long featured shiny, reflective colored surfaces associated with cars and motorcycles. Starting in the mid-Sixties, musicians painted designs on their guitars or commissioned artists to do it for them. The night before I watched Jimi Hendrix incinerate and pound his guitar to bits at Monterey, Hendrix had lovingly painted vines and tendrils on the front of his guitar and a song/poem on the back.
Ultimately, visual art and music came together in the musicians themselves. Many musicians were also visual artists. Song lyrics soared with colors and visual imagery, often because their authors were creating art. Donovan’s song, “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” contains literal paintbox colors: rose carmethene, Havana lake and alizarin crimson. People including Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Jerry Garcia, had been art students. Eric Clapton studied graphic design and was expelled from art school. Most of The Doors attended film school. Joni Mitchell’s paintings graced several of her album covers. Dave Getz taught at the San Francisco Art Institute before he became the drummer for Big Brother and the Holding Company. He said, “I was twenty-five years old and I really thought I knew where it was at, that I really knew how to teach painting and what painting was all about and all of that. . . . Within a year after I joined that band I wasn’t painting. I wasn’t teaching.”
Sam Andrew told me, “I still paint every morning. I’ve been painting all my life. Marty Balin started the Jefferson Airplane so he could finance a trip to Venice to study art. He’s very knowledgable about it.” Balin told Ralph J. Gleason, “My first love has always really been art all the time. I paint and I sculpt.”
When combined with music, the act of seeing seems to frequently find its way home to its source, in light. Musicians expressed a longing for light in thousands of songs, both the literal light of the sun and the metaphoric illumination of spiritual awakening; shining rays to drive away all darkness, both within and without.