Victor Moscoso: The Art of Rock
To prepare for the Tweed Museum’s exhibit of 30 of the rarest and most sought after original concert posters from the psychedelic era I spoke with the several of the artists to understand the art better. There are five posters in the show by rock artist Victor Moscoso. While talking with him on the phone he told me the story of his art, music and journey to the top.
The earliest poster in the show by Moscoso was done for the Family Dog, a group of hippies promoting shows for new bands like with 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, 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 1960s was a decade of extremes with wars, love, hippies, soldiers, assassinations, and human rights all conflicting with a post-war utopian dream of the invincibility of America.
Last week Victor Moscoso talked about his artwork and how the burgeoning psychedelic concert poster scene in 1966 came to rule pop culture within a few years. This week he talked candidly about hippies, LSD, and Jimi Hendrix.
“What happened was that the San Francisco Mime Troupe was being managed by Bill Graham,” Moscoso said. “They got busted for making appearances in public parks in 1965, very racy material, see, and so they got busted by the cops. In order to raise money for the lawyers Bill Graham and the Mime Troupe would put on a dance in their loft, ya know, a dance party - where you dropped LSD, smoked grass and listened to the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead really sounds good when you are on acid. Just like a garbage pail being tumbled down a flight of stairs sounds good when you are on acid. It sounds like a symphony. Since they were on acid they probably thought they sounded good too. The audience, they were on acid, so hey, this is just fine. So that’s how Bill Graham got into it, by defending the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the loft. See, to raise money for the lawyers for the bust for their performance in public parks.”
Moscoso saw rock posters at the Avalon Ballroom and knew he could do as well. In 1966, he began designing for the Family Dog. Under his own imprint, Neon Rose, he did a series for the Matrix nightclub and other mainstream companies. There are five Moscoso posters in the Tweedshow highlighting some of his greatest pieces. From his first poster he ever did in 1966 through his own Neon Rose series Moscoso has many posters in the show to enjoy.
“I like it when people like my work, even if it does confuse them,” Moscoso said. “That’s alright, it’s part of the entertainment. What happened was the posters, which are advertisements, as there were not other advertisements for these shows… There was no radio, no newsprint, no TV - certainly not. The only advertisements were these posters, and very soon the posters became their own advertising, in other words, they became a form of entertainment onto themselves. And we, the artists, became famous before the bands did, at least their music, because the posters were being done before the bands had any record contracts. So people would take posters to New Hampshire, New York, to LA, and they’d see these posters and read the names of the bands. So they were familiar with the names of the bands, but they didn’t hear their music unless they came from San Francisco. Once the bands signed record deals - then they became more famous than we did. Because, that’s the way it works. But for awhile there we had it made. It was the best of times…. unless you were in Vietnam, in which case it was the worst of times. You can use that line – Dickens… It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. If you were at the Avalon Ballroom, best of times - If you were in Vietnam, the worst of times. Same time.”
Moscoso's style is notable for its visual intensity, obtained by manipulating form and color to create effects like those seen in Op Art of the day. Given his sophistication, it is no surprise that he was the first of the rock poster artists to use photographic collage. Moscoso describes how drastically the concert posters changed his academic design philosophy and his process.
“You could call it folk art, because they weren’t designed for museums or galleries they were designed for the folk,” Moscoso said. “To get em’ to come to the dance. So they were practical. Fine art isn’t supposed to be practical. That’s why you need art critics; because it costs so much money that you have to rely on some so-called “expert.” An art expert is someone who likes art, but can’t draw.”
The movie poster for Almost Famous is just one of many examples of Moscoso’s most famous concert poster being ripped off. The iconic image of a woman wearing sunglasses visually expressed the freedom and youth that took over popular culture back in 1967 when it was created.
“Almost Famous got the idea for their movie poster from that poster,” Moscoso said. “They used photographs, but Almost Famous had nothing to do with psychedelia. However, Eric Burden of the Animals, he did a rip off of it. I would have sued him, but it wasn’t worth the trouble. Even if I would have won, I would have won nothing and the lawyer would have cost a fortune. A couple of people have ripped that off. Again, when people steal from you they take your ideas, you know - your designs, but there has to be enough in it to go after them legally. The little fish get through the net. You have to be a big fish. In other words you have to steal a lot of money from me in order for me to make it worthwhile to pursue you in court. To give the lawyers all of the money that they ask for. I think they should go to jail for charging so much. But it doesn’t work that way.”
The iconic imagery in the concert poster that Moscoso created was actually copied from a magazine. The use of vibrating colors and half-tone dots is a signature of the pop art movement that artists like Andy Warhol are best known for. Moscoso’s sunglasses poster pushed the envelope farther than any other artist in that category had gone before.
“I took the picture out of Bazaar or Vogue. It’s a model, and again, I blew it up, that’s why you can see the half-tone dots. I didn’t draw those. I just had a photograph much larger than they had intended it to be. Then I did the lettering with that one inside. That one was really quick and only took me about 6 hours to do. All I had to do was to do the lettering and then figure out the colors. That night I did two posters. I was really at that point when you are going very fast and you’re in good shape. I was there by that time and then things came much easier. It was the early posters that were harder. Later on when you know something and you have a system then they come easier.”
While the lettering in Moscoso’s sunglasses poster is psychedelic, it actually was ripped off from the originator of concert art, Wes Wilson.
“I took that lettering from Wes Wilson because it saved me a couple of hours. See, time is of the essence,” Moscoso said. “I had to have it there on Monday at 9 o’clock in order for them to give out the posters Friday, when the first dance would be. They would give out the posters to the first hundred people that left the Avalon Ballroom, that way they could clear out the hall. It wasn’t that big of a hall, so if you wanted a free poster, just leave early. Which some people did, depending on what was going on inside of course. If you’re stoned on acid and really grooving to The Doors or Jimi Hendrix, who did not play at Avalon unfortunately, you might stay. Although, Hendrix did play at Winterland (for Bill Graham’s production company). That’s where I did a poster with Rick Griffin for Bill Graham Productions. The only two posters I did for Bill Graham. I did that one for Rick Griffin. He had gotten the Jimi Hendrix poster to do and he had gotten an Iron Butterfly poster to do. What we did on the beetle one, you know, with the sun’s rays coming up behind it… For the Iron Butterfly we did what we call a trash burner, which was one of Rick’s creations. After I had gotten confidence and was doing good posters that were selling very well, I figured, well, that’s it. There’s no more room, but Rick Griffin showed up. Low and behold he made room for himself. Then I started doing a couple of posters with Rick Griffin, and they were excellent.”
Rick Griffin was a cool surfer from Southern California. He made the most famous concert poster known as the flying eyeball. Moscoso talked about working with Griffin in a collaborative role for a Hendrix concert poster.
“With Rick Griffin, after we did those posters for the Fillmore, and we were doing posters for close to a year, it started to wear thin. Too much pressure… I’d already done just about everything that I wanted to do in doing a poster for LA at the Shrine Auditorium for Pinnacle Productions. Rick and I did this poster and the bottom part had three strips, three panels. After we did it we looked at it and both Griffin and I said why don’t we do a comic book.”
In the Tweed Museum’s exhibit the most difficult poster to read was done by Moscoso for the Family Dog and advertised The Youngbloods. You have to focus your eyes on the red in the letters in order to read it, but if you look through red or green glasses the poster has a different effect. I asked Moscoso if he did that on purpose.
“Oh yes, that one moves too,” Moscoso said. “By then I was fully conscience of the movement, the “two-step animation,” I call it. You can make a woman fly and you can make a man flex his muscles. Although, I couldn’t find another picture to go with the guy, so I just went with one guy, but the lady gets up - she sits up a little bit. That followed the one I had done for the Doors by a couple of posters. I thought I would try it again.”
Go to www.thefountainheads.com for more information and go up to the Tweed show