Most people associate the words “Seattle music scene” with bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. In the 1980s and ’90s, they made the city and its suburbs a hotbed of so-called grunge rock, in the same way—and at the same time—that Microsoft and Starbucks inextricably linked the region to high tech and caffeine. But in the late 1960s, Seattle was no different than most other American cities, filled with freaks looking to break on through to the other side, which they did whenever the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and a host of local bands took the stages of places like Eagles Auditorium.
“For me, it’s almost like a modern-day type of folk art.”
Naturally, posters designed to appeal to this mind-altered audience were created for many of these shows. About 200 of these works of graphic art have been collected into a forthcoming book by artist Scott McDougall called “Split Fountain Hieroglyphics: Psychedelic Concert Posters From the Seattle Area, 1966-1969.” Designed by Glen Beebe, the 9-by-12-inch hardbound volume is in Kickstarter mode until March 21, 2015.
For McDougall, “Split Fountain Hieroglyphics,” which takes the first part of its title from a printing technique that produces a rainbow effect, has been a wouldn’t-it-be-nice pipe dream since almost the day he arrived in Seattle in 1980. During that decade, even when he was toiling as a freelance advertising illustrator, he always had an eye on the city’s graphic-arts scene, in particular its poster past and present. “I’d never even met a poster collector until I moved to Seattle,” McDougall says in reference to the vitality of the scene he discovered there. “I thought I was the only one.”
Seattle’s most prolific and influential graphic artist at the time was Art Chantry, whose “Stark Reminders” exhibition had a big impact on McDougall. Sharing an interest in Seattle’s late-1960s rock posters, McDougall and Chantry started photographing everything from the era they could get their hands on. Many of those photographs, along with images loaned by the Experience Music Project and private collectors, will be included in “Split Fountain Hieroglyphics.”
Even though he had embraced Seattle as his new home, McDougall was taken by what seemed to him the obvious influences of San Francisco’s rock-poster artists. “The San Francisco guys were so much further ahead of everybody else,” he says. “They spawned the scenes in Detroit, Austin, all those places. Almost every American city was like a year behind San Francisco. Seattle was no exception.”
At the time, San Francisco-based artists such as Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin were creating vividly colored psychedelic posters for concerts at venues like the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom. McDougall’s book will point out those similarities but it will also catalog the key differences, revealing, in the process, the traits that made the work of the Seattle artists distinct from their counterparts to the south.
McDougall comes by his unique perspective thanks to a life spent in both places, or at least almost so. The artist and author grew up on the far fringes of the San Francisco rock-poster movement, which is to say Eureka and Fresno, 275 miles to the north and 200 miles to the southeast, respectively. It was during those formative years that McDougall began his lifelong love of rock posters, both as a collector and creator.
“I lived in Eureka until 1969,” he says of his elementary and junior-high-school years. A budding artist and avid surfer when he was barely into his teens, McDougall’s older brother took him to concerts at Humboldt State, where he saw bands like the Loading Zone and performers like Sandy Bull. Naturally he picked up the posters for those shows, as well as ones he found in town. “There was a bookstore in Eureka that carried Fillmore posters and an import store that carried Family Dog, Berkeley Bonaparte, and those big ‘personality’ posters. I worked at a printing company in the summer near the import store, so I’d go there every time I got paid and buy a roll of posters. It just kept going from there.”
In addition to admiring the products of the San Francisco scene from afar, McDougall had a few close encounters with some of the people who were actually making the scene happen. “I came home from school one day,” he recalls, “I was probably 13, and there was this panel truck parked in front of my next-door neighbor’s house. I knew right away it was the Family Dog panel truck because Mouse had painted the sides and Griffin had painted the roof, which was a giant poppy flower. My jaw just dropped.”
Turns out it was Luria Castell, one of the founders of the Family Dog, which produced all the shows at the Avalon Ballroom, accompanied by her boyfriend. The couple was paying a visit on McDougall’s next-door neighbor because the latter was a real-estate agent. “They were looking at a place in rural southern Humboldt County. This was way before people were growing pot there. They were the first hippies I’d ever met, and they were way out there. I told them I was really interested in their posters, and they opened the door of the truck. The ceiling was literally wallpapered with early Family Dog posters. She pulled three of them off the ceiling for me. That was pretty neat.”
“I’d never even met a poster collector until I moved to Seattle. I thought I was the only one.”
In 1969, McDougall’s family moved to Fresno, where he attended high school and founded a company called Come Get It! Graphics with a friend named Tommy Cook. “I made a few trips to San Francisco to hear music and look for posters,” he recalls of his Fresno years, “but by 1969 and ’70, there was very little to be found. In 1967, psychedelic posters were on the cover of every magazine, it was a huge deal. By 1969, most people didn’t want to be associated with the stuff. Even the bands were moving away from it.”
McDougall and Cook designed everything from concert posters to murals for waterbed stores to billboards for radio stations. Then, in 1975, McDougall left Fresno, “never to return,” as he puts it today, for Crescent City, which is north of Eureka by about 80 miles. “I was a printer, I played in a band, and I was a surfer,” he says. “Mostly I was in Crescent City because I was a surfer—there weren’t too many of us up there. Our band had two horns and two string players, and three of these people played foot-powered percussion instruments, like a bass drum, a hi-hat, that kind of stuff. I played electric trombone and the saw. It was kind of goofy.”
It was in Crescent City that McDougall met his future wife, Susan. After they married, and with work for graphic artists at a premium in northern California, the couple left the area in 1980 and settled in Seattle, where they eventually raised two daughters. With bills to pay, McDougall turned to advertising illustration, but only until he had the reputation and experience to pursue projects that were closer to his heart, such as covers for Seattle’s legendary music magazine, “The Rocket,” catalogs for a vintage shop called Ruby Montana’s Pinto Pony, and more than 50 CD and album covers for the Grateful Dead.
All the while, Seattle’s psychedelic rock posters from the 1960s were in the back of his mind. Pure originality, he quickly understood, was not what made them so interesting to acolytes of the form. Instead, their Holy Grail-like scarcity had made them highly collectible, while their homegrown feel—which borders, at times, on the amateurish—had made them unusually beloved. “For me, it’s almost like a modern-day type of folk art,” he says. “In the late 1960s, people were only just learning how to do color separation, which resulted in some pretty bizarre stuff. I can relate because it’s how I’ve always learned—by looking at posters, talking to printers, and trying to figure out how they were done, almost like reverse engineering.”
Another twist was the fact that not all of the 20 or so Seattle-area artists whose work is so prized by collectors today were even committed to being artists in the first place. “Many of the poster artists up here were poster artists by default,” McDougall says. “They weren’t necessarily trying to achieve the fame and recognition of the artists in the Bay Area. A lot of them were just kids and people who worked for underground newspapers like ‘Helix.’ They turned out some very interesting work, taking bits and pieces from here and there, and then coming up with their own styles. In the end, though, you could probably blame a lot of what happened up here on Wes Wilson and Stanley Mouse.”
Seattle’s counterparts to those famous artists are people like John Moehring, Walt Crowley, and Gary Eagle, who are household names, but only in the homes of tie-dyed-in-the-wool, certifiable poster geeks.
“John Moehring was, I think, quite a ways ahead of everybody else as far as skill,” McDougall says. “He did a lot of the Eagles Auditorium posters, and you can just see his evolution, from his first one-color jobs to his last four-color posters, which were hand-separated using four negatives, four positives, and a bottle of opaque ink. He also did a poster for the Retinal Light Circus with Wes Wilson, which everybody always dates to 1966. Wes’s part may have been from 1966, but John wasn’t even drawing in 1966, at least not like that.”
“Many of the poster artists up here were poster artists by default.”
Nor were promoters at venues like Eagles Auditorium especially diligent about printing posters for every one of their shows, let alone marketing these posters to the public. “I don’t think any of this stuff was ever for sale,” McDougall says of the rock posters of the day. “I could be wrong about the shows promoted by Matthew Katz, who managed Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and It’s a Beautiful Day, because that was sort of his whole business venture. He produced a poster every week, but it only lasted for five or six months. In contrast, there were a lot of shows at the Eagles that never had posters, and most of those were probably done at the last minute.”
In addition to Moehring, another artist whose work is highly sought by collectors is Walt Crowley, who was Moehring’s good friend, sometimes his collaborator, and, as McDougall says, was “one of those guys who was an artist by default, but definitely competent. Crowley did two of the Sky River posters,” he adds, referring to the famous 1968 rock festival held outside Seattle, which may or may not have given promoters on the East Coast the idea to hold Woodstock in upstate New York the following year. “In the 1980s, Crowley became a TV news commentator. He was always the guy on the left. He wrote a number of books, and a lot of articles for HistoryLink.org. That’s what he was really into. He only did the art because nobody else would.”
Less is known about Gary Eagle, whose style at times suggests a fondness for the equiluminant color strategies practiced by Victor Moscoso, while a number of the posters and flyers in “Split Fountain Hieroglyphics” remain completely unattributed.
And then, abruptly, as the ’60s turned into the ’70s, Seattle’s psychedelic era was over. “The bands that were passing through town on tour had outgrown Eagles Auditorium, so a lot of shows started going into bigger venues at the Seattle Center, which had the Coliseum. But mostly the scene ended because the artwork changed, basically overnight. It went from this hippy-dippy stuff that was all hand-drawn to screenprinted production work. Almost all of it was done by the Washington Poster Company, which made signage for produce departments in grocery stores, plus posters for three out of the four Jimi Hendrix shows in Seattle, including that really ugly one from 1970 for his last concert in Seattle at Sick’s Stadium. The bands were interesting, but the artwork was almost nonexistent.”
These days, McDougall is tying up some of the last loose ends for his book, which daily moves closer to its goal on Kickstarter. And while he can deal with a few unattributed posters in his book, the “known unknowns,” as someone famously said, McDougall is tantalizingly close to identifying the artist behind one flyer that, if verified, could add a veneer of literary respectability to Seattle’s sometimes scruffy, homegrown poster scene.
The piece in question is an 8 1/2-by-11-inch flyer dated August 20, 1966, and titled “A Low-Calorie Human Sacrifice to the Goddess Minnie Mouse.” Produced by “gear works Press,” the flyer promotes “A Happening Created for the Kirkland Summer Arts Festival by Tom Robbins, in Association With the Shazam Society.” Yes, that’s the same Tom Robbins who would go on to write such bestselling novels as “Another Roadside Attraction” (1971) and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” (1976).
“I haven’t been able to reach him,” sighs McDougall. “I want to get his two cents worth on it. A few people have told me that he did the piece, but I want to be sure before I put his name on it. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.”
(To learn more about “Split Fountain Hieroglyphics,” visit its Kickstarter page between now and March 21, 2015.)