Friday, October 1, 2010

My Journey With Posters

Recently the guy who does all my framing, Corey Hartman at Furthur Frames, asked me if he could take some pictures of the stuff he had framed for me at the store. I said sure, but that a lot of the good stuff was at home too, and I suggested he come over and photograph some of that too. He did, and the experience turned out to be eye opening for him in several ways. First off, he had forgotten how many posters he had framed for me over the years. He was also surprised at how many things I had that he didn’t frame. It made me realize how long I have been collecting posters, and what a big part of my life they have been. Corey wrote up this piece for his newsletter, and it inspired me to do some writing of my own. Smoke fills the globe and the mists of time start to cloud the present as the milestones of the past return to me. 

My first thrills as a poster collector all happened in the 1960’s in New York City. My older brother was allowed to go into Greenwich Village to “head shops” to buy posters and he took along my allowance promising to return with something cool. I think the first time he came back with the four colorful Richard Avedon images of The Beatles. I ended up with Paul and Ringo which I still have to this day. Another trip to the Village brought me a poster of a chimp sitting on a toilet bearing the caption “Pot Relieves Tension.” Unbelievably my Dad thought it was so funny he let me put it up in my room. Also a number of “black light” posters, a map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and a series of posters by a company called East-Totem-West that mixed psychedelic imagery with an Alice In Wonderland motif. I still have the best East Totem-West and Corey did a completely bitchin’ job on it. The point is though, that the Beatles Avedon posters and these East-Totem-West posters lit my young heart on fire. I was off on a lifelong hobby. The fact that some of these relics of my own anthropology are now valuable was not then, and never will be my motivation. Like the music I have obsessively collected my entire conscious life, the need to have and cherish it is almost entirely emotional and not practical. I have had to create a willful schism in my mind that separates the guy who sells this stuff for a living from the internal 18-year old who desires it. 

As I passed through Jr. high and high school I continued to collect posters, usually advertising upcoming local concerts or the kind of commercially available stuff that you found at record stores and other counter-culture emporiums. I remember I had a 6- foot tall poster of The Who with a bunch of concert shots super-imposed over an iconic image of Townshend in full windmill form. Oh man, did I love that poster. I finally ended up trading it for two photo-posters: one of CSNY, one of The Grateful Dead. The kid from my dorm who I traded it to ended up flipping out and being taken off campus in a straight jacket. I wonder what ever happened to that kid and that poster. Also in High School I started learning about the cool exclusive stuff that only record stores got to promote new records. In the early 70’s I got many sweet items from the various local Budget Tapes and Records stores that would give you a poster if you bought the new album the first week it hit the stores. I also found out if you shopped in the store a lot and weren’t a pain-in-the-ass they might give you stuff off the wall if you asked. That’s how I got the Pink Floyd Animals, three-dimensional creamer that Corey considers his greatest achievement. In fact I got it from the very store - Underground Records - that many years later I would end up buying in a tax auction and turn into Twist And Shout. The fact that I kept this monstrosity throughout my entire adult life without destroying it is miraculous. At this point it is probably worth noting that even at a pretty young age I was at least a little careful with my stuff, and I was insanely devoted to it, keeping it safe through move after move - hippie house after hippie house - always being hyper about my posters, my boxes of toys, my comic books, records, books... you get the idea. I am a collector. Not a hoarder - a purposeful collector. 

Throughout my High School years I worked at The Century 21 Theatre on Colorado Blvd. It was there I got interested in movie posters. I quickly realized that the theatre was tossing 90% of the cool shit they got into the dumpster. In fact they were sending ME out there to do it. I asked the manager if I could have them instead of just throwing them out. Thus I got a great collection of 70’s music and cult classics - Woodstock, Monterrey Pop, 2001, Chinatown, The Godfather, and on and on. And I held on to all of them. 

In College in the mid to late 70’s I was pretty focused on punk, reggae and new wave and regularly stripped telephone poles and campus billboards of gig flyers for bands like Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones, The Clash, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. At the same time I was majoring in English and becoming obsessed with the Beat Generation of authors and their immediate progeny, seeking out anything that mentioned, Ginsburg, Kesey,  Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and the like. During the first half of the 80’s I was a high school English teacher and my collecting took a back seat to the most thankless job on earth - great trade off right?

In ’84 I became 1/3 owner of a store in Boulder called Trade-a-Tape. The other owners were Bart of Bart’s CD Cellar fame and a guy named Bill who was a truly unique and shady character. He was also a die hard collector and lover of music. He had a collection of epic proportions - records, tapes, posters - same as me. Bill entertained an almost endless parade of fellow freaks, geeks, half-wits and criminals some of whom were the holders of tremendous caches of cultural goods. There was one guy in particular I will never forget. Bill told me he knew someone who was selling off his psychedelic posters, and he had a bunch. We went out to a non-furnished house in South Boulder where a skinny, wired long-hair met us at the door with darting eyes and hustled us in and to a back room where we sat cross-legged on the floor and he produced a series of boxes full of vintage, first-pressing Fillmore and Avalon Posters. Bill had already been there once and gave his famous giggle as my eyes got big as saucers. At this point in history -probably late 84 or 85 - the real deal - the classic ballroom posters from 65-70 were still an unknown commodity to everyone but the people who originally experienced them - a number far fewer than their increasingly collectible nature might suggest. In other words, nobody was really collecting them and nobody really had any idea what they were worth. Remember 1969 was less than twenty years in the past and most of baby boomers were in full erase-your-youth-and-idealism-by-becoming-a-sellout mode. Not this guy though. He was selling his few possessions (the posters) so he could pursue a monk-like existence of whores and heroin in Thailand. He proudly told us the only Thai he needed to speak was “you got any heroin?” and “how much does it cost?” When I reached out to inspect a handful of posters he pushed my hand away “hands off bitch.” In the mid-80’s this was the first time I had ever been called a bitch (in fact it remains singular to this day). “Don’t touch them until you own them.” This experience was getting just too weird. But Bill seemed unfazed and said, “show us what you got.” The guy then proceeded to slowly, lovingly, almost sexually unveil a peep show of the most fantastic things I had ever seen. I had experienced a few images of this particular genre on album covers and in magazines during the 60’s. I had a vague awareness that these were important, but like the Golden Age Comic Books of the late 30’s to late 40’s, they were just out of my reach. Interestingly, to this day I have never owned a Golden Age Comic Book and still consider them out of my reach. Anyway, as this nut case doled them out I instinctively knew this was a turning point in my life. This was it! These were the ultimate manifestation of my rock and roll quest. They didn’t take the place of music in any way, they were a different category of aesthetic pleasure that brought together elements of music, literature, graphic design, cartooning, high-art, high behavior, photography, and an ineffable whiff of the glory days of my favorite bands. I now understand why the guy was such a bastard about us touching them because they were stone mint. Every one of them glowed like burning coals (thanks Bob) and just being in the same room was intoxicating. Not heroin intoxicating apparently, but definitely good enough for me. Bill had told me ahead of time that he was selling them for 35 bucks each, which seemed outrageously expensive to me at the time. After actually looking at them, I had to have them. I think I walked away with 6 or 7 that first day. I took them home expecting my wife (girlfriend then) to be pissed at me for spending so much on them. But she (having gone to Berkeley from 66-70) immediately recognized them and was thrilled that I had gotten them (thanks Jill!). She even encouraged me to go back and get more if I wanted - which I did. Bill set up another meeting, and this time Tweaky McBadvibes told us he was leaving for the land of milk and heroin any day and this would be our last chance. I came a bit more financially equipped this time and bought 10 posters for 350 dollars. 

They were awesome! Big bands like The Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Santana and The Doors side by side with obscure bands like Blue Cheer, The Charlatans and Peanut Butter Conspiracy and unlikely artists like Thelonious Monk, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry opening the bills. The art was a mind-blowing mix of real artistic technique mixed with heroic doses of LSD. I was immediately drawn to the work Rick Griffin, who remains my favorite, but I really liked it all. If the artwork wasn’t as great on one as another, it might have Albert King opening for Van Morrison at the Denver Family Dog - so it was still pretty special to me, and I was able to find something to love in all of them. 

 I was still a few years from opening Twist and Shout and my focus on finding these posters became pretty intense. I started going to record shows and garage sales and second hand stores looking for them and did find a few, but I quickly realized that the quantity and condition of the original stash from the deranged world traveler was rare as hen’s teeth and I was a fool for not buying everything that fool had right then and there. Unbelievably, shortly after Jill and I started Twist and Shout he resurfaced, walking into the store looking much worse for wear but brandishing a smaller box of the same high quality goods in addition to some interesting rice-paper Thai prints of Buddha’s and such which I purchased along with most of his posters (again - why not all of them schmuck!). I put one of those rice paper things up recently in a closet and get a big chuckle every time I see it. I later heard from Bill that the guy ended up in a Thai jail. From then on Jill and I referred to him as “Thai jail.” 

At this point I probably didn’t consider myself a serious collector, and I wasn’t. I was just a guy who liked posters and had a huge collection of music and a record store - so although I may not have considered myself a serious collector, I was setting things up to turn out that way. In the first weeks of Twist and Shout a kind of hip, speedy, weird, older guy came in with a box of stuff. I had never seen him in the store before. He looked all around the store, his eyes darting over the posters from my childhood collection that I had used to decorate the store. I was paranoid to put up any of my psychedelic ballroom posters, because I didn’t have the money to frame them properly and I didn’t want to damage them. So, in those early days of the store I decorated the walls with those Avedon Beatles posters, and the free posters I had gotten from Budget Tapes and Records and the Map of Middle Earth etc. This guy introduced himself to me as Mike and said, “I like this place, I’m gonna give you this stuff.” He proceeded to pull out a poster-Bob Dylan at The Denver Auditorium. He told me it was from the early 60’s. He left the rest of the box - which was crap - newspapers, cassette tapes, but that poster made me change the way I felt about posters. I realized I was now in an amazing position to get a lot of posters. That Bob Dylan Poster has become the symbolic center of my collection - even though it is not a psychedelic poster - it is emblematic of lots of other facets of my beloved obsession. 

I continued to acquire posters, largely through the store, but also through sometimes totally unexpected sources. One summer afternoon I was working the store when Jill called me up from some guy’s house (long before people carried cell phones) saying she had found something interesting. In the past her interesting finds had included Neil Sedaka records and such so I was a dick and resisted. But she was insistent. She said it was only a few blocks away and the guy had a bunch of psychedelic posters. I bit. I remember I walked over to the guy’s row house and every one of his possessions was strewn on his front lawn in a desperate attempt to avoid the clutches of the landlord who was evicting him. The guy’s name was John Fish and he told me he had done many the posters for Denver’s Mammoth Gardens venue in the early 70’s. I was quite aware of Mammoth Gardens (it is now a much renovated Fillmore Auditorium) and all the many great bands that played there in the late 60’s and 70’s so I was excited. He pulled out artist folio after artist folio of his own work - finished posters, artist proofs - everything. Thinking back to my hesitance with the last nut I said - “I’ll take everything.” He was thunderstruck. “Whaddya mean 'everything'?” I said, “I will take every poster you drew - all the loose artwork and anything you did that has to do with popular music.” I think I gave him 3 or 4 hundred dollars and I walked away with literally hundreds of pieces of art. Much of it was completely worthless, and even the best of it didn’t have the artistic merit or historical provenance of the Fillmore/Avalon/Family Dog Stuff. However, it was to pay unbelievable benefits a number of years later when Mammoth Gardens was being converted to The Fillmore, and it became known that the only known stash of original Mammoth Posters was in my hands. I managed to get into negotiation with The Bill Graham Archive. They (arrogantly) offered me a pittance for about half a dozen of the best Mammoth posters. I held tight and told them I would trade them one for one for first pressing posters from their archives - I wasn’t interested in money. That was how I got a couple of my favorites - including the Led Zeppelin Avocado design and a really great Pink Floyd among others.

The last huge score from the era before poster prices became inflated was a guy about 15 years older than me, who told me he had worked for Barry Fey, the great Denver Area concert promoter, back in the early Family Dog days, had a huge poster collection, and wanted to start selling them off. He took me out to lunch and got me drunk on really expensive Tequila and then took me over to his apartment to show me his collection. As soon as he opened the door I saw a bunch of framed beauties on his wall. He said those were his favorites and he wouldn’t sell those, but he then broke out a couple of folios of pristine posters from the ballrooms with a COMPLETE set of Denver Family Dog posters; number 1, all the Doors gigs, The beautiful Quicksilver Pony Express design,  and best of all - an incredibly rare variation of The Grateful Dead Show from Sept 1967 with the band’s name printed across the skull. Again, I didn’t hold back and I paid him the 45 dollars each he wanted. This time I remember handing over more than 5 large to walk out of there with the posters. I didn’t look back.

From this point on, the public perception of psychedelic posters started to grow, and the prices inflated exponentially. It became much harder to get those kinds of deals, and as I framed and put stuff up in the store I realized I was going to eventually run out of room. I started to narrow my focus. I only collected certain artists, certain bands, certain cities - but not everything. There have been many great and hilarious and not so hilarious stories in more recent years. There was the guy who was hired to put up posters for the Jimi Hendrix concert at Regis Field House in Denver on Valentine’s Day 1968. He handed out some of them, but sat on a stash of them for 35 years. I managed to get a poster and two handbills out of him. There was the guy who came in and told me he was The Family Dog. “Uh sure, you were The Family Dog.” He insisted he was the spiritual and social center of the commune and venue known as The Family Dog in Denver and he had all the posters. Whether he was full of shit or not, I don’t know, but that bitch sure did have some nice posters. It seems like every couple of weeks someone comes into the store with some poster to sell. Some are great, some are crap, but Twist and Shout has sort of become known as THE place to look at posters between New York and Los Angeles.

So what this all started out as, was my way of telling you that key to a successful poster collection was having a great framer. Not a good framer - a great one. An artist. Because after collecting for a while I realized that they were not worth that much to me in a box under the bed. I really only liked them when they were up where people could see and enjoy them. This is real art. Last year The Denver Art Museum produced a fantastic show featuring psychedelic poster art. I was thrilled to be part of that. There are psychedelic posters hanging in the Louvre. Watch Antiques Roadshow for a couple of weeks and you’ll undoubtedly see some psychedelic posters pop up. This is indeed, real art. Check your box under the bed for some gold, take it over to Furthur Frames and allow these important historical artifacts to breathe new life into your home.

--Paul Epstein


joe said...

Great stories! What a character, that Thai Jail guy.

Karl said...

Hi Paul. We've met before at your Alameda store (I remember all the cats), years ago. Great stories in collecting your posters. It's great you were able to acquire some of the old Mammoth Gardens history. You really have a fantastic collection.
I was a good friend of John Fish, when I was a kid. I knew John for years. He gave me some artwork from Mammoth Gardens, that he did posters for. John was an good friend, musician, great artist, and actor.
Funny, I also was a friend of Bart, from the CD Cellar, in Boulder, for years. It's a small world.
Hey, congratulations on your new Twist and Shout location. Ironically I grew up in the historic house directly across the street, when that building was Bonfils Theater, in the 70's.
I'll stop in to visit you sometime, and introduce myself again. Peace.

brad kelly said...

WOW, nice stuff, especially the Colorado material. All yours?