John Van Hamersveld is an art-school-trained modernist with roots in the California surf culture who was set loose in psychedelia, which he called “hippie modernism.” In 1964, he quickly made his name as the designer of the now iconic Endless Summer poster, parlayed that into a job with Capitol Records, where he designed more than 300 album covers, including Magical Mystery Tour and Exile on Main Street. He also jump-started a music scene in LA with a series of monumental Pinnacle Shows, for which he and Rick Griffin designed posters. At 79, he’s still pushing artistic boundaries, blazing a trail into what he calls a “post-future” world. In his wide-ranging conversation with Van Hamersveld, PKM’s Benito Vila opened many of the puzzle master’s secret closet doors.
“Cool” fits graphic artist John Van Hamersveld in much the same way that the poster for The Endless Summer fits surf culture, the Magical Mystery Tour album cover fits the Beatles and Exile on Main Street album cover fits The Rolling Stones. Each of those standout designs, each initially associated with fringe-element subcultures, are Van Hamersveld compositions. So is the famed February 1968 Shrine Exhibition Hall Jimi Hendrix/Blue Cheer/Electric Flag/Soft Machine concert poster, the one that street artist and dissent entrepreneur Shepard Fairey cites as being “perfect”.
To re-cap Van Hamersveld’s catalog of over 300 album covers, a who’s who of modern music, or to describe his design approach by comparing him to artists of other eras, would make for a wordy hoo-ha. It’s hard to do justice to the influence Van Hamersveld has had on graphic design around the world. It’s harder still to express how, in championing “the idea”, he connects past, present and future and constructs distinctive, far-reaching art.
“Psychedelic is hippie modernism.”
In our PKM talk, Van Hamersveld describes the simple difference between 1960 and 1964 as well as the coming on of youth culture between 1964 and 1969. He also recalls his thinking and his process in putting together several of his memorable designs. When Van Hamersveld provides context for his work, it’s easy to see what led him to become one of the counterculture’s most significant artists. He takes the truism of “it’s a crazy world” and makes it more than that. Today, at age 79, he still finds fascination in fitting visual pieces together, whether he’s telling a story or whether he’s figuring out how to make his next project say what it needs to say.
PKM: How do you describe what you do?
John Van Hamersveld: The daughter of an editor friend of mine calls me “Puzzles” and, really, graphic design is like making puzzles because you get these photographs to work with and then you’re adding in typography. It all comes to you in little pieces that you align and put together.
PKM: You make puzzles?
John Van Hamersveld: I make puzzles.
PKM: What are your first memories of design and of art?
John Van Hamersveld: My mother was an artist and when I was around seven or eight, she and I made a design for a pennant, which had an old English S on it for Stoneleigh Grammar School. I won a prize, a cowboy book. That cowboy book had these nice black and white drawings that I was probably influenced by somehow another.
“..the most interesting part of Los Angeles is that Los Angeles is a place that creates subcultures. It’s always been that way: art culture, rock culture, surf culture, film culture.”
PKM: What did you do for fun as a kid?
John Van Hamersveld: I was a surfer. I skateboarded. We took the skates off the boot and nailed them to two-by-fours and we would go out on real fine, smooth sidewalks. Then we’d go to the beach and ride on surf mats. We did that until we graduated to surfboards. In my teen years, we traveled up and down the coast. Every weekend, usually, I was somewhere surfing on the coast of California.
PKM: How would you get about?
John Van Hamersveld: We’d get someone with a driver’s license and all pile into their car, or their mother’s car. We’d stack all the boards on the top of it or we’d stick them out the back of a truck if we got something like that. Some of us had to sit in the back, out in the wind, as we drove along the coast. If it got too late, we’d just pull over and go into whatever field with our sleeping bags, sleep until the morning, get up, go to a breakfast place and, then, go surfing.
PKM: How would you describe the kids you hung around with?
John Van Hamersveld: We were all toughs and surfers. Phil Becker; he became Phil Becker Surfboards. Jared Eaton; his brother became Eaton Surfboards. There were three or four others. We all had nicknames. Mine was Hammer because no one could ever pronounce my name. Phil Becker was Gar. Eaton was The Spaz. We were all into surfing. That was our focus. We drove the various points, coves and beaches, and really got into all the different variations of surfing. It was like a sub-world, a completely different world, like an underground. California was an unbelievable place to be a kid and a surfer. It was beautiful, except for high school. High school was just like the rest of America everywhere. All high schools are the same, except for maybe their racial aspects. Here in California we typically had whites, blacks and Mexicans. My high school had one Japanese person, one black person. That was it. Everyone else was white.
the difference between 1960 and 1964 is like the difference between black and white and color
PKM: Did your group have a name for itself?
John Van Hamersveld: Yes, “The Lunada Bay Boys”, and “The Gang”, and The Gang had a reputation.
PKM: What was that?
John Van Hamersveld: Like I said, we were all tough and surfers. We had to dominate things. We’d go to places like it was combat in a way.
PKM: What was high school like for you?
John Van Hamersveld: I had two art classes every day because of my dyslexia. They didn’t know what it was, but they felt that I would excel in that. They took away my typing class and that gave me two hours of art. Being an artist is like being disassociated. You’re not a part of the social world, especially in high school. You’re blocked out of “the ideal”, of “being on top”. I was never around much for “the school”. I was gone, surfing. I was with my gang.
PKM: Did you go straight from high school into art school?
John Van Hamersveld: I went to Aspen, Colorado to learn how to ski first. Then I had a severe, unbelievable accident that almost clipped my eye out. I went back to art school after that, to the Art Center College of Design [in Pasadena], which was a Bauhaus design school. For me, the difference between 1960 and 1964 is like the difference between black and white and color. There’s a narrative in all that. Kennedy’s elected in black and white. He dies and after that the Beatles and the whole music business thing starts. Then the political stuff starts; then the hippies start. Then you have this thing called “hippie modernism” that appears. From my point of view as a Bauhaus design person, hippie modernism was a completely different perspective on how to develop communication. I was at Chouinard [Art Institute] when I designed The Endless Summer poster . That’s considered modern. Later, I do the Jimi Hendrix poster , which is completely different. That one is hippie modernism.
From ’60 to ’64, Warhol was going from modern to post-modern, which was then identified as “pop art”. I started out first at this Bauhaus school, one where modernism had been brought into the conversation, where everything became very geometric and the line was very straight, where there were primary solids, color from all kinds of different spectrums, but where everything was predominantly gray. Then when I went to Chouinard. That was a completely different orientation. There I listened to Warhol, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein, and I went to shows at the Pasadena Art Museum, where I saw that pop art transition of modernism to post-modernism clearly. The hippie movement, and hippie modernism, was entirely different. It was like a striving for some utopia. For those next four years, ’64 to ’68, that struggle within the arts, politics, and communication was just a wild time. It was my punk era.
PKM: Going back to The Endless Summer, I read the silhouette of the surfers came from a photograph. Is that right?
John Van Hamersveld: Yes, but there’s more to it. You have the primary solids, the circles and the two rectangles, or a square and a rectangle. They’re plugged together, and then the typography is drawn. I had learned how to draw type. That would be what they call in the movie business, a “title treatment”, or “the trademark”. The photograph is the narrative, but it’s abstracted. When you look at the [James Bond] 007 titles from then, those were using line resolutions, solid black silhouette figures. From my point of view, doing the poster, I felt that that would be the figurative aspect of it: the setting up of a common image, the surfers, who were carrying their boards as if they were going somewhere even in the absence of a beach. The beach was replaced by a feeling, a color, done in day glow, that it had this impact that was modern. It was pop art as well, colors you could never forget, with the contrast of figures over the colors burning an image into your brain: the endless summer.
PKM: Do you remember who the people in the poster are?
John Van Hamersveld: Yes, very well. The poster had its 50th anniversary over 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. The poster was done before the film was finished, and both came out in ’64. It went across the country in ’65, and it was screened in New York in ’66. There were 50th anniversaries for three or four years in a row. It was amazing. [The surfers are Bruce Brown, Mike Hynson and Robert August, the stars of The Endless Summer film.]
PKM: How did you end up at Capitol Records?
John Van Hamersveld: It’s ironic, how it all works. It’s 1966. I’m out of school and I have a job in a design studio over on La Cienega, near the Ferus Gallery. All my college friends are on the art scene; Ed Ruscha is the art director of Art Forum. It’s great. Then I’m let go from the design studio, so I go meet with [photographer and Ruscha roommate] Pat Blackwell, who was one of my teachers at Chouinard. He says, “Why don’t you go over to Capitol Records and maybe you can pick up some illustration work for them?” I call George Osaki, who headed up Capitol’s art services, and set up a meeting. When I arrive, I go up the elevator, in this modernist building, in that circular dynamic, to the sixth floor, which was the art floor. I go through my portfolio of surfing magazines with George and then I pull out The Endless Summer poster. It blew his mind. He reached over to his bookrack and he pulled out The Endless Summer soundtrack album with the poster on the front of it. George assumes I’m the album cover designer, so he calls Brown Meggs, the vice president of the CRDC [Capitol Records Distributing Group] who signed the Beatles to the label in 1963, and arranges a meeting. Three weeks later I arrive, walk through the door and there’s this Yale businessman standing there. As I’m coming towards him, Brown looks at me––I’m the hippie art student, ragged, rough, as bohemian as they come––and he says, “I’m going to hire you and you can’t turn it down.” So I became Brown Meggs’ personal art director, the art director of the CRDC. He knew how big The Endless Summer campaign was in New York, nationally and internationally. That’s how it went.
PKM: What are a few of the things you did at Capitol to get their artists noticed?
John Van Hamersveld: I did covers and campaigns for a lot of people. Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. I did their first cover. I did the campaign for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s; I made the posters and displays on that. I met The Beach Boys, without Brian Wilson, who was nuts at that point. He took a picture of a bee in stained glass that I used on the cover of their Wild Honey album. After I’d been at Capitol like eight months, Brown calls me to come up to his office and as I walk into the room there’s a little EP [extended play record] sitting on the table that has a square picture of The Magical Mystery Tour characters, the Beatles in their costumes. He says, “We can’t sell this. I’m in trouble. Brian Epstein has committed suicide and normally we get all of our graphic materials from EMI. Not only don’t we have anything, we have to release this record. You know the Bohemian psychedelic world, why don’t you take this home, put it all together and bring it back to me?” By the next day, I had a color treatment and I put it in front of him. Brown said, “That’s great. That works really well. I’m not going to show that to them. We’ll just go print it.” That’s how I became the art director and designer of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album cover.
PKM: How did you get that double blurring effect on the back of the album?
John Van Hamersveld: Where it’s diffused? It’s a photograph that’s blown up and grainy. That image was provided. I just assembled the parts of it. You have to realize that as an art director, you work with like 10 or 12 different people to make an image and get it through the process of being printed and distributed. Sometimes you’re just the art director and you hire the graphic designer. Sometimes you’re the graphic designer. Sometimes you’re the photographer. I was able to do all three things: I drew, I designed and I took photographs.
PKM: The notion of the front and the back seems somewhat interchangeable for you, particularly in your later albums, like Blondie’s Eat to the Beat.
John Van Hamersveld: I’d been working with [photographer] Norman Seeff for a few years before that one came about. I was like his art director and designer. He’d take pictures of anything and everything, and I would make them into something. On that Blondie album, you just have some photographs. So what do you do with that? Do you just crop them and put them into a square? No, I tilted them. Then, because there was a high-tech design fetish at that time, I put a graph under them. And I made the typography like a cafe sign. I took the seven letters of Blondie and stylized them into a title treatment, like in a movie poster, rather than doing something conventional. I put all those orientations together, into one, which is really what post-modern design is all about: anti-design.
PKM: You’ve said you lived a double life at Capitol. How was that?
John Van Hamersveld: I would put a suit on to go work at Capitol Records and there I was all set up as the art director, designer, artist and photographer. I’d come home and get back into my beatnik jeans and T-shirts to be a part of the LA art scene. That was the double life. Having learned so much about the record business and the music business from being at Capitol Records, and having had the experience of taking the point of view of Brown Meggs, I decided at one point that I would do “happenings”. With my art school’s film and animation department, I made a proposal to do a light show at the Elks Hall up on Wilshire Boulevard, next to Otis [College of Art and Design], a place that my friends and I would go see bands on weekends. I found the Starkist Tuna people were willing to put up money if we did these shows at the Shrine Exhibition Hall. They put up $30,000 and I pulled all these people together: two partners from the USC business school who did that side of it; Wavy Gravy, who became the liquid light show part of it; George Lucas, Caleb Deschanel and Taylor Hackford, who helped in putting the light show together in terms of film; Bert Gershfield from UCLA and Pat O’Neill, who had one of those early film processing machines, where you could do a frame-by-frame animation in different colors.
PKM: Those happenings were the Pinnacle Concerts, right?
John Van Hamersveld: Yes, the Pinnacle Concert Series. I’d been up to San Francisco to see [poster designers] Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso, and found myself hanging out at The Avalon Ballroom and The Fillmore, and met Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, Mouse [graphic artist Stanley Miller] and [rock photographer] Bob Seidemann. I wanted to bring that vitality down to Los Angeles where we only had small clubs and the largest event place was the [Hollywood] Bowl. I wanted to do a dance hall. I was able to get the permits from the police and organize a program for like 2,500 people on weekends. It was three bands for two days over a weekend, with advertising and promotion and all that. I pulled that together as a process for like a year, until we ran into trouble with the Brotherhood. I couldn’t tell the people at Starkist that the Brotherhood was laundering money at our concessions.
PKM: Your Pinnacle posters for Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, The Who, Cream, Big Brother are called “psychedelic”. What is psychedelic? What does that term mean to you?
John Van Hamersveld: Psychedelic is hippie modernism. It’s collage. Our colleges and art schools, especially in the cities, were always in rough neighborhoods, with devastated worlds around them. The houses and apartments we could afford were in 80- or 100-year old Victorians. We didn’t have any money, so we’d go to the junk store to get our furniture and clothes. It became trendy. We found war surplus stores and we got to see a whole other side of history that we didn’t find in the post-war bungalows, our parents’ houses of the ‘50s. So the ‘60s became this very rich antiquity, a whole new fashioning of the world, especially from ’64 into ’69. Youth everywhere gobbled it all up through television or radio, with Bob Dylan, Richard Albert, Timothy Leary, The Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Chuck Berry explaining the culture.
PKM: Where did the “Crazy World Ain’t It” T-shirt come from?
John Van Hamersveld: I’m back from London. The Beatles have broken up. America is in a recession and holding companies are buying up all the content companies. I go to a rough neighborhood in Echo Park and I rent a full house and set up a way of doing graphic work there. One day someone comes by and I take this little tiny piece of mescaline, which is just ridiculously good and I go into all these hallucinations. I wake up in the morning and I go into my studio and I look down at an old magazine that I picked up in a junk store that has a false teeth ad, one that has this smiling face with eyes. From that, I draw what became known as the “Johnny Face” and put a spiral around it. That was in ‘69. Then in ‘70, I made a poster out of the Johnny Face and sent that around the world to all my design and graphic and photography friends. People looked at the face but they didn’t know what it was, so I put the phrase “Crazy World Ain’t It” in there and then they got it. That became like an emblem. The Johnny Face and the phrase went on T-shirts and got sold at hip stores that we would distribute to along with Mr. Natural. It was in a cynical world. Mr. Natural was totally cynical. R. Crumb and Zap and all that. When I decided that I would open up an office and start doing entertainment graphics, the Johnny Face became this perfect media to send around. It created all this activity. I had “Johnny” put on the poster, and so I became Johnny.
PKM: How did the art for Exile on Main Street happen?
John Van Hamersveld: Funny, when I met the Stones in ‘71, I was wearing a Crazy World T-shirt. Here I am in this Spanish villa and there’s Keith Richards and Mick Jagger sitting on a couch. I showed them The Endless Summer and when I pulled out Jefferson Airplane [Crown of Creation] they loved that. The Airplane in the U.S. were known at the time as The Rolling Stones of America. Charlie Watts joined the discussion and they had me back the next day. On that second day, I was sitting with Jagger and Marshall Chess. There’s a knock at the door, and Marshall goes over, opens it and in walks [photographer] Robert Frank. He has a little 8-mm movie camera with him. I say to Jagger, “He’d be great for the cover.” Frank joined the conversation and he later went down to Main Street in LA and did a little bit of filming. The weekend came and the next time I meet Jagger, he, all of a sudden, had these pieces of photography that Frank had done, and that he wanted to use. I had to turn it into something. I sat there with Jagger and Marshall and we went through the piece-by-piece and decided that it would be more like an art print.
Norman Seeff was there, too. Over the weekend, he had shot The Stones in a Hollywood studio late at night. Keith showed up for the shoot totally high, pants half off, and falls, bringing down the whole set. It was a loss in a way because what they were going to do was take a set of stills and, now, what they have are pictures of the set crashing, a sequence in motion. I’m sitting at the table with Jagger; meanwhile, Keith is across the way with his mirror glasses on, really loaded. Keith takes his hands and puts them together, and then opens them up and says, “It should be like a postcard fold-out,” and then he falls to the floor. We take his postcard fold-out idea and that becomes the thing that was inside the album, what Jagger called “the bags”.
PKM: All spontaneous stuff.
John Van Hamersveld: That’s how things all went. Small world stuff, too, meaning, I meet George Osaki, who is a Hawaiian beach boy. He knew about surfing and its culture. Then I meet Brown Meggs, who is promoting the Beatles and he knows Derek Taylor in the Beatles press office. When I tell Brown about going to London, he fixes me up with Derek Taylor, whom I already know from his trips to LA. Then, when I go to the Beatles’ office in London, I meet his secretary, Chris O’Dell. I’m over there three months and I need to get a visa so Derek Taylor creates one for me with Alan Aldridge, John Lennon’s designer. Alan signs my visa. I’m in this crowd of people––The Who, the Faces––driving around in a Mini Cooper with Eric Clapton. I’m with Derek Taylor on the day the Beatles decide to close and he says, “I won’t be able to do anything with you because we are closing the office.” So I go back to Los Angeles. That’s ’69 into ’70, and in ’71 or ’72, Chris O’Dell calls on the phone and says, “Could you come up to the mansion?” She was now Jagger’s assistant. That’s a small world.
PKM: Very small world. How did the billboard for Exile on Main Street come to be?
John Van Hamersveld: Norman Seeff and I are in his Ford Mustang convertible going down Sunset [Boulevard]. He mentions that Marshall wants me to do a billboard. I say, “That’s great”. We meet on that and my idea is to take the band and associate them with the images on the cover, so that Mick Jagger would be the little guy in the tuxedo and Charlie Watts would the one with the big balls in his mouth. The two characters who look like werewolves would be Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman, and on the end would be Keith Richards. That was the idea of it, breaking out of the black and white of the cover by making each one a color and taking Jagger’s writing of Exile on Main Street and blowing that up across the bottom as the title of the billboard. I had the billboard made bigger than any of the billboards on the strip, so when you came up to La Cienega on Sunset, right there at the corner, it was a huge thing,
PKM: That kind of large-scale media looks like something you enjoy, like the Olympic murals and the Fremont Street projections. How do you find working on things of scale as opposed to working on an album?
John Van Hamersveld: It’s all the same thing because it’s all within your desktop, either on a flat area or on the screen. You size everything and put the whole thing together, making puzzles. We go back to that. Here’s the deal: the difference in me is that I draw and have a drawing style, so I’m able to bring that line drawing over and make a vector out of it, which can be turned into a solid shape or a line. Then I’m able to manipulate and collage that into other forms that I build, make and color. The Fremont experience is a seven-minute movie, an animated film that we’ve done on computers. The stuff is drawn, goes to my PowerBook and then it’s loaded onto the main computer and then through three Adobe programs, all managed into a frame-by-frame thing, synced to a soundtrack. Again, it’s puzzles.
“This (Exile) was really the entrance of punk in a way. The music was the blues mostly, but the album cover was an early form of punk graphics.”
PKM: Is there a medium that you prefer?
John Van Hamersveld: I’m a graphic designer, an artist and a photographer. I taught at CalArts for seven years. It’s a conceptual school where it’s all about ideas. The idea you can have made by anybody. What I do is I make something and then have a service blow it up and install it. In the micrographic of doing album covers, it was the same thing. I made up all the pieces and parts, put them together in the paste up and sent it to the printer, had them arrange it and make a color reproduction of it, which then was printed on cardboard, folded and distributed across the world. Today, I do the same thing. I’ll do 120-foot mural on my computer at probably 12 inches by 48 inches miniaturized, and I put all that together, but I’m able to blow it up and see what it looks like at full scale. Puzzles. [Laughs]
PKM: Is there an experience you try to convey?
John Van Hamersveld: I studied communications design, which has its limits and its forms. Film, for example, is an entirely different orientation. You can make the story sequential, or you can make it abstract, or you can make it something else. When I make a mural, yes, it’s a static frame, but it’s like a movie, too, because I’m putting all these pieces together that either don’t need anything or are abstract. The way I set my murals up is I have these clouds that are always in them. Those are things that the eye is attracted to. It’s almost like a grid. Those clouds pull your eyes into position, then you’re able to see through the collage, holding to the clouds, seeing through all these different levels of information that are packed together in color and form.
PKM: I’m going to ask you about working with specific people. What was it like working with Gut Terk?
John Van Hamersveld: Gut Terk. [Laughs] He was the manager of Blue Cheer. He arrived at the studio in moccasins, his tight jeans and a shirt with kinda pattern on it. He was introduced as the ex-president of the Hell’s Angels’ chapter in San Bernardino. I didn’t know until later that he had been in there with Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters and all that. Gut became someone who socialized in all the ballrooms and with all the band managers. Blue Cheer had two other managers, but Gut became like their front person, the character, the hippie. He and I became friends and he introduced me to everyone. I was totally out of context in comparison to him in that San Francisco scene. He also wanted me to take risks. [Chuckles] There was one day where he had one of those chopper bikes with forks splaying out five feet, or something like that, to a small wheel in front. I got on and he kept looking at me, shaking his head and saying, “It’s okay. You’re doing okay.” Gut was like the maître d’, introducing me to the guests in the café, a very elite café of Bob Fried, Victor Moscoso, Bill Graham and Chet Helms. [Van Hamersveld took the band photograph for the first Blue Cheer album, which he and Terk designed and which features a poem by acid chemist/sound engineer Owsley Stanley.]
PKM: What was it like working with Rick Griffin? [Griffin was a popular poster artist, who created artwork in San Francisco for Family Dog and Mouse Studios, among others, and who became a renowned Zap Comix contributor.]
John Van Hamersveld: Rick Griffin, I grew up with. He was three years younger. He was a gremmy, a term we used for young surfers or surfers just starting out. When Rick was in high school, he drew a cartoon strip and created this character, Murphy. Someone drove Rick down to see John Severson, who was starting SURFER magazine, and John put Murphy, this caricature, on the cover of the magazine and that went out to like 50,000 people around the world. It got Rick got this immediate reputation. I met Rick when he was 16 and told him that I was going to do a surfing magazine, to be called Surfer Illustrated, and he did some cartoons for me. John Severson got upset about that. Rick made a telephone call to John Severson and put me on the phone, and suddenly my bedroom magazine became a political tool that got me an art director job at SURFER magazine.
When Rick turned 18, he was going to San Francisco with a friend and he had this horrible accident. It tore up his face and his eye on one side. He had been this perfect-looking, white-blonde surfer boy. In ’63, he enters the magazine office with this black patch over his eye, his face scarred heavily on one side and his hair all cut in a butch sort of haircut. He was so humiliated, and you can’t blame him from his point of view because he had been the ideal. Rick struggled for probably a year-and-a-half, maybe two years, trying to find somebody who would like him. It was a total reversal. Murphy was the hot comic strip character, Rick was the hot artist, and then––boom––he was this weird person. What Rick did is he went to Chouinard, grew his long hair, found some people that liked him and married Ida. They went up to San Francisco, and he melted into the San Francisco scene. When I was working at Capitol, I would fly up and see him on the weekends, going back and forth. When I invented the Pinnacle scene, Rick would fly down and stay with me. We had about 43 groups come through the Shrine under the Pinnacle flag and Rick got along with all the bands and all their managers.
[Among those playing those 1968 Pinnacle shows are many influential bands and musicians: Alice Cooper, Jeff Beck, Blue Cheer, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Captain Beefheart, James Cotton, Cream, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, The Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Traffic, Velvet Underground, The Who and The Yardbirds. Van Hamersveld and his team, which included Griffin, created the posters for each show.]
That was a wild scene and I met a lot of people, which really helped me in building my design business in the ’70s. At Capitol, I started understanding management and distribution. By starting my own dancehall, I learned production, advertising and promotion. And by meeting all these managers and groups on the contemporary music scene, I got another whole education. In some way, it was like another sort of college. [Laughs] You’ve asked all these questions from my closets. [Drops his voice] There’s nothing in this closet. John, what’s in this one? Oh, another puzzle. [Comes back to his own voice] Do you have another closet for me?
PKM: Yes. I’ll ask you something I wasn’t going to: a real closet question. On the back of Skeletons from the Closet [The Grateful Dead’s best of album], there are these three figures playing a card game. Who are they? What’s going on there?
John Van Hamersveld: [Laughs] That’s a tribute to Rick Griffin. The guy in the center who’s playing Jesus is Rick’s manager, Gordon McClelland. He’s an art collector who sold Rick’s work. Marlon Brando and Cesar Romero are representing cultures: the white culture and the Hispanic culture. There’s a hamburger on the table, connected to Marlon Brando, the motorcycle bad guy, the rebel. Cesar Romero is this slick western guy from Mexico City. This is America and Jesus is in the middle. Off in the distance is modernism: Buckminster Fuller [in a futuristic car] and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building. [There’s also a flying saucer.] On the table is a little modern cone with a globe on it and the ecology symbol, a symbol you don’t see anymore. They’re all in this post-modern setting, these three people deciding upon how we’re going to live, while they’re playing cards. And that really is still the way we live today: we have the whiteys and the Hispanics and the blacks, and we have Jesus in the center. The thing about Rick Griffin at the time, this is like ‘74, he was a Christian and living in Orange County. He was working on a religious set of graphics for Gospel of John, and he was still doing Zap, but he ws away from the San Francisco scene. Another thing about that album is the band doesn’t like the cover and tells me they don’t like it, that it doesn’t fit in with them. There’s a devil on the front, Botticelli’s Venus and a skeleton with a record going around on its middle finger. The band didn’t like all that but they had to go with it, and it turns out to be their bestselling album, so everyone sees it, back and front.
PKM: I’m going to jump forward to today. What is California Locos, the artist collective you’re in?
John Van Hamersveld: That’s organized by Dave Tourjé. It’s five of us who all come from Los Angeles and who have these different points of view about Los Angeles. It’s a little rougher orientation than what normal people expect when they refer to “the arts”. To me, the most interesting part of Los Angeles is that Los Angeles is a place that creates subcultures. It’s always been that way: art culture, rock culture, surf culture, film culture. All that. Those are subcultures that we put together here and the five Locos are all from different subcultures. I’m from the surf culture. Tourjé is from the skateboard culture. Wong went to Chouinard, was a downtown Chinatown person, and had a band called Charlie Chan. Tourjé is the manager of it all and he’s very articulate about it. There’s a book coming out, maybe in the fall, that Tourjé has put together. In that book you’ll find the attitude, the concept and the reflection of the Locos.
PKM: How does that work with what you’re doing at Post-Future.com?
John Van Hamersveld: Post-Future is really the entering of the digital world. I was in on the early part of what is called “TED”: [a conference and online confluence of] technology, entertainment and design. TED has become a huge thing around the world. That all happened at the beginning of the digital world as it worked its way through the ’90s. By 2000, we start seeing the personal office where you don’t have to go to a company anymore. From my point of view, that is what I call “post-future”: as in taking the past––post––and putting it together with the future. You hear that all the time now, people describing something as being both evocative of the past and the future. That’s where we are. What the Internet created––this is the most interesting part of past and future––is a communication of the referencing of everything. We’ve been taken out of context and put into this Google sensibility where everything comes from everywhere. The past and the future can always be maintained at the same time now because you can reference the past and the future at anytime on your phone. But what’s happened in that is that we’ve lost subcultures. We’re just in the Internet culture at this point. So progressively from ’84 to today, there’s an evolution of past and future. In all that, Post-Future has become the name of my licensing company. Today, everything is electronic, but I’m an artist who initiates art from the artist’s point of view. Is this somewhat clear?
PKM: Yes. People will get all that. One last question: how do you remember Exile on Main Street being received?
John Van Hamersveld: People didn’t like it. In doing Exile the way I did, The Stones got a collage from Frank, a big name photographer, folded into a large package. I knew Ahmet Ertegün [the president of ATCO, the distributor of Rolling Stones Records] from the art scene and I knew he would accept it. It wasn’t slick. It was rough. It was artistic. It was the part of The Stones’ idea of themselves at that time: the rough-world Stones. This was really the entrance of punk in a way. The music was the blues mostly, but the album cover was an early form of punk graphics. John Lydon comments when I do his [Public Image, Ltd. This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get] cover in ’84, “You caused this rough, tough Xeroxing and cutting, pasting and taping artwork”, which was a nice complement 10 years later. Again, at the time it came out, people didn’t like Exile. But for me that guy with the balls in his mouth, that metaphor, was terrific. You have his face rolling the stones in his mouth and then “The Rolling Stones” in the title. As a word image metaphor, that was fantastic, ahead of its time.
JVHcool.com is the online portal to Van Hamersveld’s nearly 60-year legacy.
Post-Future.com is a marketplace for those looking to buy his work and also provides a visual playground for those who just want to poke around.