Fillmore Posters 2011

The Fillmore Concert Poster:

 

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

 

Anyone who knows me, I mean really knows me, knows that I am obsessed with Fillmore concert posters.  While studying history in college I learned about the artwork done for the first rock concerts and I was hooked like an old history teacher starting a Civil War relic collection.

 

What are Fillmore posters you ask?  Well, in the early sixties while Ken Kesey was a grad student in Oregon he participated in a medical experiment run through his college.  The government at the time was testing the effects of LSD to see if it could be used for military purposes as a psycho-agent.  From there Kesey became hooked on the “trip” and went south into Nevada.  He hung out with bikers called The Hells Angels, and had a group of friends who he called The Merry Pranksters.  The story goes on, but eventually they ended up frequenting a bar named The Red Dog Saloon.  That is where the first “official” psychedelic concert poster was made, and is now referred to as “The Seed.”  Done by Alton Kelley, who passed away recently, it advertises a band called The Charlatans. 

 

Who are they you ask?  They were a folk-Americana group that dressed like they just stepped out of a Hollywood Western.  Their music wasn’t very good, which is why you hear more about the band who played for the Pranksters later, The Grateful Dead.

 

“The Seed” as a concert poster is not really that earth shattering as it is kind of cartoonish and only done in black and white.  What Wes Wilson was producing for The Beatles last show in America at Candlestick Park, and his brightly colored self-produced posters, was light years ahead of anyone else at the time.

 

All of these people collided at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in 1966.  That was when Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters decided to hold an “Acid Test,” which was completely legal and even included graduation certificates.  The Acid Test was really just the Pranksters renting a theater to show their home movies of driving out to the East Coast to meet Timothy Leary (the novel “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” was written about the bus ride).  Coincidentally, Neal Cassady drove the bus and was a member of the Pranksters.  He was central to the first real alternative movement when he drove cross-country in the forties with Jack Kerouac to inspire “On The Road.”  It is amazing that one person could inspire so many literary giants, yet never write himself.

 

In reality, this whole movement started in the forties with a few outcasts later called Beats.  Then, in the sixties, due to home videos not having sound the Pranksters had a band called The Warlocks play for “ambiance.”  That band, as opposed to The Charlatans, you have heard of as they are known now, The Grateful Dead.  In the end it was all about home movies, a literary scholar or two calling it “The Acid Tests”, and a young Bill Graham seeing dollar signs flashing everywhere that created the Fillmore scene.

 

Very quickly after the first test by Kesey, Graham began producing shows at The Fillmore featuring the Merry Pranksters and other acts. Ken Kesey had begun to run into legal troubles and soon he was faking his own death.  Graham created a dance hall atmosphere with balloons on the floor, apples to munch on, and a safe environment for everyone. He also wanted a flyer that promoted the bands playing to young people.  Wes Wilson was called upon to create the first Fillmore posters and he also did all of the first Family Dog’s produced show posters.

 

The Family Dog was a group of hippies who were the opposite of New York bred, adopted, holocaust survivor, Bill Graham.  Graham saw dollar signs that led him to a career that will never be surpassed and would require many more words to describe.  He tragically died in a helicopter accident in 1991 as he was finally achieving an elusive success he had sought in his personal life that he had already achieved in his professional life.  Bill Graham’s Fillmore posters number just short of 300 from the years 1966 to 1971.  There are other venues included in that series, but the art is, in my opinion, the greatest of the last century. 

 

While the Family Dog also threw their first shows at the Fillmore, they found their own home at the Avalon Ballroom after being pushed out by Graham.  Chet Helms ran the Family Dog and soon he went back home to Texas to get Janis Joplin to come out and play for a band at his ballroom called Big Brother and the Holding Company.  She had been out in San Fran already in the early sixties trying to make it as a folk singer and had returned to Texas feeling like a failure.  When she came back in 1966 her band became the house band at the Avalon. 

 

The Family Dog posters number significantly fewer than Fillmores, but they are more true to the philosophy of hippie ideals and “The Seed.”  Wes Wilson did the first few concert posters for the Avalon Ballroom too, but he was soon replaced by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse.  Helms wanted control over his posters, and most of the early ones followed a theme.  They are slightly western, but with cut-out pictures from very old magazines.  This is an entirely different kind of art from the Fillmore posters that Wes Wilson was freely making without any restrictions or input.  Graham knew the people loved the free expression that was being germinated in 1966 and let Wilson grow into an amazing artist. 

 

There were two other artists, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscosso, who joined the elite club and soon they were all known as the “Big Five.”   Griffin was amazing with overlays and color, learning his trade doing surf logos and art.  This also led to his most well known piece with a flying eyeball as the focal point on a concert poster for Jimi Hendrix from 1968.  Griffin went on to design the lettering for Rolling Stone Magazine and tragically died in a motorcycle accident in 1991.  Victor Moscosso was a classically trained artist that joined the poster scene and made some of the most vividly colored posters that you will find of the era.  He also did some comic book art for Zap Comics, but is known for his series of posters of the era called the Neon Rose.  Those were for a club called The Matrix, run by Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane.

 

Balin’s band, Jefferson Airplane, was the house band of the Fillmore in the early years.  This was pre and post Grace Slick and Graham even tried to manage the Airplane for a period of time.  The Airplane shot to fame after Slick left The Great Society, bringing with her the songs “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love.” 

 

One forgotten artist from the “Big Five” was Bonnie Maclean.  She was Graham’s wife and did many posters that are very well known today.  She helped run the Fillmore and is usually not given the same credit as the male artists, but she was just as earth shattering. 

 

Later artists came along in 1968 after Wilson was fired by Graham and they took the concert poster in various directions.  One artist that I personally know is Lee Conklin.  On my honeymoon my wife and I went to his home in a town called Columbia near Yosemite National Park.  His house had a mural on the wall in pastels so that when you looked out the window and then looked at the surrounding walls it carried on the landscape.  He did a logo/design for my wedding, my website logo (www.thefountainheads.com), and I have some of his original artwork.  Conklin is best known for his album cover for Santana with a lion and faces crawling out everywhere. 

 

Other artists carried on the flame, but this is how it all kind of started.  Today, a website (www.wolfgangsvault.com) owns all of the rights to the Fillmore posters, and also all of Bill Graham’s possessions and collections.  They are being sold piecemeal through the site, which is owned by a former Minnesotan.