I Was A Teenage Hippy Poster Artist…

Pictured: Bill Grahamat the Fillmore. The 3 posters in this graphic are by Wes Wilson

I Was A Teenage Hippy Poster Artist…

In the summer of 1966 I was 19 years old and living at my parents’ apartment on Russian Hill in North Beach.  I was working for Bill Graham at the Fillmore Auditorium painting the two signs that people saw as they entered up the stairs into the dance hall.  One would be advertising next week’s show and the other the week after that.  

   One perk of the job was getting to see the shows for free.  The first band I was actually excited about seeing was the Irish group Them.  During my senior year at Tam High their single Baby Please Don’t Go was one of my favourite records.  For some reason it always made me think of walking down Catalpa Street in Mill Valley.

The Irish band THEM.

   Bill Graham had booked the band to play one night on a Thursday in June so I was in that afternoon to finish off my board before the crowds came in at eight.  Bill was rushing around checking on every little detail of a night at the Fillmore.  He was like a man possessed at such times.  He dressed casually with a dark sweater over a white shirt and black trousers.  He had a face like thunder and a hairdo like Frankie Avalon.  He moved with great intensity and purpose from one station to the next: the box-office, the bar, the guy doing the sound, the light show. 

   The light shows, which were primitive at the early Trips Festival, had now become sophisticated operations.  There were a couple of opaque projectors covering all the walls with coloured liquid images.  Each operator would use two transparent plates with coloured water in between which they’d jiggle as the blobby image was projected onto the wall giving a psychedelic effect as it throbbed to the beat of the band onstage.  In addition there were old black and white movies projected silently along with slides so that if you weren’t interested in the music there was always some element of the light show to grab your attention.  It may have been the beginning of multi-media.

   Bill always put out a big box of apples at the top of the stairs for people to take as they came in the door at 8pm.  He also had to check that those behind the bar selling soft drinks had everything they needed.  There was no booze at the Fillmore but as hippies from the Haight district made up a large proportion of the crowd the smell of marijuana was ever present.

   After I finished painting my board and cleaning it up, I walked over to the stage and sat down on the floor at the front.  As the doors opened at eight I suddenly found myself surrounded by people.  There was always a crowd of people sitting at the front.  The Fillmore was an old fashioned dance hall and was just one of several venues in that neighbourhood which, in earlier times had featured black jazz and blues musicians. 

   I remember nothing about the support act but when Them walked onto the stage Bill was with them.  They were dressed eccentrically and the lead guitarist had dark glasses on.  Bill was the master of ceremonies at every one of his Dance/Concerts and his announcements were always dramatic.  As soon as the band was ready he made a brief speech climaxing with the name of the band.  Immediately the lead guitarist played the opening riff to Baby Please Don’t Go and I was dazzled.  Their set was excellent and Van Morrison’s vocals were every bit as good as on the records.

   Other bands I got used to hearing were the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead.  One band that Bill would never book at this time was Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Their bass guitarist, Peter Albin, used to come see Bill in his little office about once a month presumably to ask if he would hire them.  He never would.  There was a benefit gig at the Fillmore one night which was the only time I saw them play there and before the doors opened they were having a sound check for their new vocalist Janis Joplin.  She began shrieking into the microphone like a banshee and it was so loud that Jerry Garcia, Pig Pen and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead all ran out into the foyer holding their ears.  Though Janis would, in time, become a huge star, this first exposure gave me a pretty permanent prejudice against her vocal style.  For me it was just too shrill.  I only ever heard her sing nicely once over at the Avalon one night when she delivered a lovely, quiet rendition of Gershwin’s Summertime.

   During the early summer of 1966 Friday mornings were important to me.  It took me two buses to get to the Fillmore by 11am so I could finish off next week’s sign.   It had to be polished and eye catching before the evening crowds came in the door.  This meant putting the final touches on with acrylic paint then wiping it down with a damp cloth to take away the chalk marks.

   Bill was always there and busy.  I don’t recall him ever being casual.  He was all business.  Bonnie MacLean, his girlfriend, was often there too.  I was by now good friends with Bonnie who always took photos of each of my boards.  She was older than me by a few years and in a way reminded me of my sister Nell.  She was always curious about different aspects of the now blossoming hippy phenomenon which San Francisco seemed to be the centre of.  She and Bill were not hippies and I don’t think at this time they ever turned on.

Bonnie MacLean and John Myers at the Fillmore 1966.

   Of course Bill was making his money out of that very phenomenon but he himself was pretty clean living.  He didn’t smoke or drink and was also athletic.  On weekday afternoons he and Jim Haynie would organise touch football matches on the dance floor at the Fillmore and his determination to win was ever present.  Jim Haynie was Bill’s handy man and a very nice guy.  He was a bit of a hippy and seemed constantly amused by Bill who he called ‘Willy.’  Jim was an actor in the San Francisco Mime Troupe which Bill managed before running dance concerts at the Fillmore.

   Every Friday afternoon Wes Wilson would arrive with a big brown paper package containing that week’s batch of posters fresh from the printer.  Without saying a word to anyone Bill would immediately get his ladder out and perch it on the staircase up against the wall above.  Using his staple gun he would put about eight of the posters up in a row.  Standing back he would stare at them in silence.  Then he would extend his right arm towards one of the posters with his thumb straight up in the air.  Slowly he would he would tilt his thumb down from 12 o’clock to 9.  What this exercise achieved was a total mystery to me but I think Bill was trying to find some way of evaluating how good the poster was.

   Wes was a very cheery fellow and I always enjoyed his company.  I naturally was full of questions about how he did his work.  I was amazed to learn that his artwork was smaller than the finished poster.  I had always been of the opinion that it was best to work big and then reduce but Wes did artwork not much larger than a 10×8 photo.  His colour combinations were always a source of interest to me as he’d do the artwork in black ink on line board and then give explicit directions to the printer about colour separation. 

   Wes had designed the logo for The Family Dog and being a big fan of good logos I absolutely loved it.  He had drawn the word “The” in long skinny cartoon letters that had the quality of bone about them.  On top of this he superimposed an egg shaped badge with the name Family Dog on it around a vintage photo of a native American smoking a pipe and wearing a top hat.  Across the bottom was a banner with the words: ‘Presents’.  It was beautiful.

The Family Dog logo designed by Wes Wilson.

   One thing that Wes was always talking about was the purchase he was going to make of an airbrush which somehow was going to make his work easier.  I didn’t really know what you did with an airbrush but I soon learned that it’s main job was touching up photos.  I soon saw the airbrush at Flax, the art shop downtown, and found them very sleek and swish.  It was a metallic pen with a tube that connected to an air compressor and on the top of the pen above the front tip was a small cup where you would put your wet paint in using a brush.  You’d then turn on the compressor and gently spray the area you wanted to touch up.  It could dilate from a thin line to a wide area.  I don’t remember its price tag but it was a very expensive item.

   I didn’t always like Wes’s designs but the ones I did like far outweighed his duds.  Grinding out a Fillmore poster every week was a pressure and some weeks he was more inventive than others.  But then my opinion was often at odds with other people.  Bonnie wasn’t keen on his Andy Warhol poster but I loved it and Marty Balin, the lead singer of the Airplane was quite scathing about Wes’s posters, describing his lettering as ‘blobby’.  One thing I liked about Wes’s work was how he’d often draw three dimensional shapes and then mould the lettering around the shapes.  I was very influenced by him in this regard.

   At this time most of my social life was back across the bridge in Mill Valley.  I would hitch hike over to Marin and crash at friends’ houses.  My main activity was getting stoned, listening to music and talking with my friends.  The Top 40 on KFRC was still a pretty broad church bringing a mix of different styles but they played singles and by now most people who were smoking weed were listening to albums rather than singles.  A few particular albums started this shift in listening habits for me.  Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the first LP by The Lovin’ Spoonful and the Beatles’ Rubber Soul.

   Previous singles by the Beatles were always packaged on long players, but Rubber Soul was different to its predecessors.  It was a concept album.  Even the photo on the cover was weird as it had been distorted visually.  The songs hung together as a whole so that you got used to the order in which the tracks played.  Anyone who ever entertained the notion that The Beatles were a flash in the pan now realised they were wrong.

   A regular hangout for me was a friend’s house up on Molino which was very modern.  His parents were away a lot.  Somebody would produce a lid, the plastic bag containing an ounce of grass, and pour it into a sieve taking out the seeds.  Using Rizlas, we would roll these skinny little joints.  When I had first tried pot in my senior year at Tam it took me a bit of time to get used to the experience, but after I returned from my trip to sea I began getting loaded with a vengeance. 

   Unlike smoking a cigarette you would take the lit joint and suck the smoke deep into your lungs, holding your breath.  Sometimes you would speak while still holding your breath then with a big exhalation the slightly confused state of being stoned would settle over you.  Things you normally never thought about suddenly became objects of great interest and very funny.  The consumption of food also became very exciting.

   One friend named Matt was stoned as many hours of every day as was possible.  He was a very interesting guy but way out there.  In fact Matt was unable to function in straight society.  He had pretty long hair and looked like every white middle class parent’s nightmare.  Once he spent the night at my parents’ apartment on Russian Hill and his behaviour completely upset my mother Beth.  “I’m sorry I freaked your mother out,” he said in his quiet engaging manner.  He seemed to have no control over the effect he had on others.

   Most of my friends had dropped LSD and it wasn’t long before I tried that too but my first experience was so mild  that I couldn’t notice anything different, a bit like my early outings with weed.  A new piece of jargon had entered the hip lexicon and that was the word ‘trip,’ used to describe an LSD experience.  My friends told stories about good and bad acid trips and the implication that one’s ego could cause a bad one.  Letting yourself go seemed to be an essential element of having a good trip.

To be continued…

While preparing this piece I learned the very sad news that Jim Haynie had passed away. This means very few of the people I knew at the Fillmore are still with us as both Wes Wilson and Bonnie MacLean died last year. Rest in peace all of you.

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Author: milleravenuemusings

I am a semi-retired actor, singer and graphic designer who once designed posters for Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in the late 1960s.

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