Most of the guitarists, bassists, and mandolin players in photographer Jay Blakesberg’s just released gem of a new book, Guitars That Jam: Portraits of the World’s Most Storied Rock Guitars, are members of bands that use rock, bluegrass, the blues, and R&B as launch pads for improvisational jams. But one artist stands apart from this group – Willie Nelson – who posed for Blakesberg in 2014 at the Lockin’ Music Festival in Arrington, Virginia with his famously beat-up classical guitar. Nelson calls his 1969 Martin N-20 “Trigger,” after the horse ridden by matinee idol Roy Rogers, but with all due respect to the red-headed stranger, Willie doesn’t quite get the metaphor right. Comparing his guitar, as well as the rest of the Martin, Gibson, Fender, Alembic, Modulus, and Ibanez axes in Guitars That Jam, to a horse is fine, but musicians like Willie, Jerry Garcia, Warren Haynes, Carlos Santana, Trey Anastasio, and Neil Young are polar opposites of the saccharin Rogers. I’d say they are more like rodeo stars, or perhaps elite jockeys, who ride their thoroughbreds, night after night, to the musical equivalent of the Triple Crown.
Blakesberg captures the energy of these artists (plus more than 50 others), the sheer beauty of their instruments, and the intimate relationship between artist and machine, with the sure hand and keen eye that has made him a favorite of rock bands and music fans from coast to coast. Accompanying each photo of the artist in performance with his or her guitar is a statement about the instrument, usually written by the artist. These range from the ethereal (“I didn’t go after this guitar; this guitar came to me,” says Steve Kimock of his 1972 Charles Lobue Explorer) to the loyal (“This is the one I always go back to,” says Trey Anastasio of his 2002 Paul Languedoc Custom) to the grudgingly respectful (“It’s heavy, and in general kind of a pain in the ass – just as a good blues guitar should be,” says Jackie Greene of his 2010 National Reso-Phonic Resonator). But Willie’s son, Lukas, has clearly caught the naming bug from his dad, and may even do the old man one better. “The name of the guitar is ‘Georgia’” Lukas says of his 1957 Gibson Les Paul, “but the other name for it is ‘the Spanish Inquisition,’ because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” Nice! A young Monty Python fan! “It’s got an unexpected growl and a lot of spirit,” he adds, as does this terrific new book by Jay Blakesberg.
Last year, when Unit Editions of London published Manuals 1: Design & Identity Guidelines, the 432-page gloss-wrapped hardback sold out fast.
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For those of us who do not live in Texas, and even for many who do, Austin is an outpost of progressive weirdness in a state better known for its regressive rectitude. Music has been the key to Austin’s enlightened reputation, and after a brief flirtation with psychedelia in the late 1960s, the posters that were created to promote the state capital’s music scene became as iconoclastic as the city itself, as a new book called Homegrown: Austin Music Posters 1967 to 1982 ably demonstrates.
With essays by noted Texas author Joe Nick Patoski and poster artist and historian Nels Jacobson, Homegrown is mostly organized into thematic sections, including Blues Portraits (Muddy Waters, Mance Lipscomb, Big Joe Williams, Johnny Winter), Traveling Bands (Frank Zappa, Gram Parsons, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead), and Punk (The Ramones, Iggy Pop, David Johanson). The first section, though, is devoted to the city’s first full-fledged rock hall, Vulcan Gas Company, which produced shows by local bands like Conqueroo, Shiva’s Head Band, and 13th Floor Elevators at 316 Congress Avenue, from the fall of 1967 until the spring of 1970. Gilbert Shelton, who is better known now for his Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics, was the venue’s first poster artist, hewing to the psychedelic sensibility being practiced by Wes Wilson and others in San Francisco.
After Shelton and three other Austinites moved to San Francisco to found Rip Off Press in 1969, Jim Franklin took over art-director duties at the Vulcan, bringing a more realistic style to the club’s rock-posters. It was also Franklin who made the lowly armadillo a symbol of the Austin music scene, a stature that was codified when the Vulcan closed and a new venue called Armadillo World Headquarters opened in 1970. Franklin designed the first poster for that storied hall, along with 58 others, although Micael Priest and Guy Juke produced more (99 and 61, respectively). Other artists whose careers are recounted by Patoski include Ken Featherston, Danny Garrett, and Sam Yeates, while Jacobson offers readers a window on techniques employed by artists and printers alike. We learn, for example, that Shelton used white acrylic paint to cover up mistakes made in India ink, and that it was a printer named Johnny Mercer who introduced Austin poster artists to the wonders of split-fountain printing, which allowed them to riff—if briefly—on one of the San Francisco poster community’s signature psychedelic looks.
On May 1, 1953, a rifle-toting bobcat named Simple J. Malarkey ambled into Okefenokee Swamp, the setting for Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip, which ran in U.S. newspapers from 1948 until 1975. At the time, Malarkey’s inspiration, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was at the height of his political power, routinely destroying reputations in the name of rooting out Communism. Kelly should have been intimidated, but he mocked the bilious senator from Wisconsin for a year and a half, until one of the newspapers that published Pogo, the Providence Bulletin, threatened to drop the strip if Kelly didn’t drop the character. Seizing upon this fresh opportunity for parody, Kelly promptly drew a new Malarkey panel, hiding Malarkey’s face under a sack. “I’m afeared us will haf’ta keep these bags over our heads, otherwise that chicken from Providence might recognize us,” Malarkey confided to a cartoon cohort on October 8, 1954. In the context of the strip, the statement was a reference to a Rhode Island Red named Sis Boombah from the previous day’s comic, but it was also a clever slap at that Rhode Island newspaper that had tried to censor him.
Kelly’s Malarkey/McCarthy plot is just one of the many storylines in Evidence To The Contrary, which covers the syndicated Pogo comic strips from 1953 and 1954. The third volume in what Fantagraphics promises will be a dozen, Evidence To The Contrary gives us Kelly at his most self-assured, an artist whose facility with both caricature and dialect convinces us that an alligator named Albert really does enjoy nothing more than a good cigar; that an owl named Howland wears a gravity-defying wizard’s cap; and that the guilelessness of a likable possum named Pogo can be a surprisingly effective weapon against the fulminations of mere politicians.
Anyone with even a passing interest in mid-20th century design has heard of Charles and Ray Eames, but Otis and Dorothy Shepard were arguably the more influential designing couple. Until recently, little was known about the pair, each of whom was an accomplished artist in their own right, efficient with line, unerring with color. A gorgeous new book by Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadal titled Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream corrects this gap in the design literature. Filled with never-before-published materials from the Shepard family’s archives, the book is packed with both personal photos and key examples of their work from the 1930s to 1960s.
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Since 1979, World War 3 Illustrated has been a forum for those who chafed at the treacly bromides of Ronald Reagan, who heaved on the endless hypocrisy of religion, who were seriously cheesed at the presumption of male politicians to deny woman their reproductive rights, and who had nothing but contempt for the fearmongering that followed the tragedy of 9/11.
But in the hands of founders Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper, along with an ever-changing roster of new and returning artists—from Eric Drooker, Sabrina Jones, and the late Spain Rodriguez, to Sue Coe, Art Spiegelman, Chuck Sperry, and Tom Tomorrow — World War 3 has been more than a vehicle for artists to vent their anger, although many of them have done that exceedingly well. More importantly, World War 3 has been a place to build a counter narrative to the pablum ladled into the trough we know as the mainstream media, a place where the most unflinching and searing critiques can bud and flower before blasting the corpulent ruling classes to smithereens.
There's a new book out about Big O Posters, which grew out of the graphic design vision of Peter Ledeboer, the charismatic art director of the U.K. incarnation of music and counter-culture magazine Oz, published psychedelic, sci-fi, and fantasy posters from 1967 until 1980.
Originally promoted in the pages of Oz to sell readers full-size posters of the artwork they were enjoying in the magazine, the roster of Big O posters included some of the biggest names in rock art, from Martin Sharp (a pair of album covers for Cream) and Mati Klarwein (Santana’s “Abraxas”) to H.R. Giger (Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery”) and Roger Dean (multiple covers for Yes). It’s a big, image-packed tale, which is why The Art of Big O, designed and published by Michael Fishel and written by Nigel Suckling, both of whom were Big O artists, feels so right. It, too, is big and image-packed, capturing both the atmosphere of the London graphic-design world of the 1960s and ’70s as well as the work itself, which is jammed into every nook and cranny of the hefty tome like so many posters tacked to the walls and ceiling of a teenager’s bedroom. The result is less a nostalgic trip down memory lane than a paean to the obsessives who produced and printed this often unapologetically obsessive art.
This past spring, the This is… series of graphic biographies about famous Western artists kicked off with a trio of handsome, modestly scaled books on Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, and Jackson Pollock, thereby covering its pop, surrealism, and abstract-expressionism bases in one swift stroke. This fall, This is… ventured into somewhat less predictable terrain with a pair of titles devoted to Paul Gauguin and Francis Bacon.
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Published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name (through December 13, 2014, at Washington State University’s Museum of Art in Pullman), Roger Shimomura: An American Knockoff offers a crisp look at the recent work of this Seattle-born painter of Japanese descent, who spent some of his earliest years in a World War II internment camp in Hunt, Idaho. Forced ostracization helped shape Shimomura’s sense of otherness, which has found expression in his work since the 1970s. Not surprisingly, some of the most powerful paintings reproduced in the exhibition catalog – which includes an essay by Anne Collins Goodyear and an interview with the artist – depict imagined images from those years. Because Shimomura was just three when he and his family were sent to Camp Minidoka, though, he relied upon translations of his grandmother’s diaries to create pictures of the surreal circumstances of trying to live a normal American life while imprisoned. My favorite, “Classmates,” captures two girls – one with Euro-American features, the other Japanese – holding ruby-red apples and smiling, seemingly untroubled by the barbed wire strung between them.
Other paintings in the book are comic-book-style self-portraits of the artist as iconic characters like George Washington (famously crossing the Delaware) and Superman (his trademark costume covered by a kimono). While these images may appear to be pop polemics designed to poke a thumb in the eye of some of America’s most patriotic icons, the artist demurs: “Sometimes people mistake my usage of them as painting the enemy,” he’s quoted as saying. “But it really comes out of my visual reverence for them.” For the artist, the paintings are conversation starters, as in “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware,” which is supposed to make viewers ask themselves, ‘What if George Washington had been Japanese American?’ In other words, how might a heroic Japanese figure early in the nation’s history have changed our culture? Well, one might answer, the current president of the United States is African American, and that fact has done little in many precincts to further the dialogue about race. But the lack of easy answers in Shimomura’s work is fine with the artist. “If my work is seen as raising more questions than it answers,” he says, “I’d be pleased….”
When the race that became known as Repack was first run on October 21, 1976, a half-dozen or so people, along with a dog named Junior, lined up at the top of Pine Mountain Road just west of Fairfax, California. Before them was Cascade Canyon Road, a twisting dirt plunge that dropped 1,300 feet in roughly two miles. An Oklahoma transplant named Alan Bonds came in first on that cloudless morning, but it was Bonds’s roommate, Charlie Kelly, who became known as Mr. Repack, thanks to his role in helping to set up that initial race and organizing just about all of the 24 Repacks that followed.
Now, in Fat Tire Flyer: Repack and the Birth of Mountain Biking, Kelly candidly tells the story of the rock-n-roll-soaked years that led up to that race, as well as the business he started a few years later, MountainBikes, with his other roommate, Gary Fisher, with whom he coined the phrase we all take for granted today. Kelly gets to tell this tale not just because he was there -- he was one of the sport’s principal instigators and evangelists, the guy who kept the records, got on the phone, and regularly made lots of stuff happen. Thus we follow Kelly on rides out to Mineral King in the southern Sierra and up over Pearl Pass in Crested Butte, Colorado, a two-wheeled ambassador of sorts for his nascent sport. Filled with Wende Cragg’s cinema-vérité photographs, many taken at a brutally sharp left-turning switchback called Camera Corner, and with a foreword by Joe Breeze, who built what many consider the first true mountain bike in 1977, Fat Tire Flyer is a terrific read, although it’ll probably make you want to put the book down, dust off that clunker that’s been buried in the garage, and head for the hills.
Fat Tire Flyer: Repack and the Birth of Mountain Biking by Charlie Kelly
From 1903-1905, a Japanese-born, Dutch artist named Gustave Verbeek turned America’s Sunday funny papers on their collective head.
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On Monday October 21, 2013, rock-poster artist Alan Forbes was standing outside a bar in the Lower Haight neighborhood of San Francisco, minding his own business, when someone coldcocked him, completely out of the blue. The only thing taken was his cell phone, but Forbes’s assailant left him with two skull fractures, migraines, and enough damage to his right eye that he’s eventually going to need glasses.
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