By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008; Page B06
Alton Kelley, 68, a graphic artist whose mind-blowing posters and
album covers for the Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company
and legendary San Francisco concert halls ushered in the psychedelic
rock-and-roll era, died June 1 of complications of osteoporosis at
his home in Petaluma, Calif.
Mr. Kelley, with his life-long collaborator, Stanley "Mouse" Miller,
created some of the most distinctive and memorable images in rock
music, including the famous skull-and-roses emblem for the Grateful
Dead and the "Girl With Green Hair" poster that advertised a concert
at the Avalon Ballroom.
His work, with its colorful swirls, spiral designs and exaggerated
hand-drawn lettering, plastered telephone poles, head-shop windows
and vacant buildings in San Francisco in the 1960s. The handbills
cost about $5 to print and were given away at the end of concerts.
They now sell for tens of thousands of dollars to art collectors who
compare them to the belle epoque art of such masters as Henri de
Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha.
Mr. Kelley and Miller scored their first big hit with a 1966 poster
advertising a concert of Big Brother & the Holding Company and the
Quicksilver Messenger Service. The art was based on the logo of the
Zig-Zag cigarette rolling-paper company.
"When Stanley and I did that poster, we got really paranoid," Mr.
Kelley said. "We figured, 'Oh no. Now they know we smoke dope!' And
we took what little pot we had and flushed it down the toilet. But we
wanted to create something that was visual and would make people stop
in the streets and read and figure it out. It worked like a charm."
The word on the streets of San Francisco at the time was that if you
could not read the poster, you should not go to the concert, said
rock historian Paul Grushkin, who wrote "The Art of Rock: Posters
from Presley to Punk" (1987).
"This was a time in America when the Beat Generation still ruled and
you had people left over like Allen Ginsberg while we morphed into
the era of the Merry Pranksters," Grushkin said. Mr. Kelley "was one
of 10 people in San Francisco who were about to usher in the hippie
times. . . . It wasn't down and coffee-driven and moody and boozy
like the Beats. It was all such an innocent and happy time -- it was
Mr. Kelley, a native of Houlton, Maine, who had worked as a mechanic
in a helicopter factory in Connecticut, raced motorcycles and drew
cartoons of hot rods before he moved to San Francisco in 1964. He
lived in a group house in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and in the
summer moved to Virginia City, Nev., where he helped stage electric
folk concerts at the Red Dog Saloon, a dance hall that became famous
for its freewheeling scene of drugged-out musicians in Western costume.
After he returned to San Francisco months later, Mr. Kelley and
others formed the Family Dog, an enterprise that set up weekend
concerts with dancing and light shows, featuring local bands such as
Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish and the Grateful Dead.
A competing promoter, Bill Graham, hosted concerts at the Fillmore
West auditorium; the Family Dog ran its concerts at the Avalon Ballroom.
With Miller's collaborations, the two were "riffing off each other's
giggle," they said, poring over art books in the public library and
freely appropriating images and concepts from history and commerce.
"Stanley and I had no idea what we were doing," Mr. Kelley told the
San Francisco Chronicle's Joel Selvin in 2007. "But we went ahead and
looked at American Indian stuff, Chinese stuff, art nouveau, art
deco, modern, Bauhaus -- whatever. We were stunned by what we found
and what we were able to do. We had free rein to just go graphically crazy."
Soon enough, reporters who were trying to divine the meaning behind
the "Summer of Love" found him. Mr. Kelley, Miller, Victor Moscoso,
Rick Griffin and Wes Wilson were named by Life magazine in September
1967 as the seminal poster artists of the era, or the "phantasmagoria
of best-selling avant-garde."
Musicians including Pete Townshend and Mick Jagger sought out the
pair, and Mr. Kelley moved into album art, designing six Grateful
Dead album covers, the Pegasus image for Steve Miller's 1977 album
"Book of Dreams" and three Journey albums in the late 1970s.
He also drew several posters in 1966 for bluesman Bo Diddley, who
died yesterday. [Story, Page A1.]
Corporations eventually took over the rock-and-roll music scene. Mr.
Kelley worked for a few years on album covers, then returned to an
earlier love, hot rods. He illustrated the cars in fine-art oil
paintings, then sold the images for T-shirts and other merchandise.
Survivors include his wife, Marguerite Trousdale Kelley of Petaluma;
three children; his mother; a sister; and two grandchildren.
In 2007, the 40th anniversary of the "Summer of Love," Mr. Kelley
said that people have forgotten how the 1960s sparked an era of
creativity by cracking open the uptight culture that came out of the
1950s. Unfortunately, he said, the whimsical tenor of the mid-1960s
turned darker as more young people flooded into the San Francisco Bay
area. "By 1968, it had pretty much gone to hell with all religious
nuts coming, the politicos, the junkies, dope dealers, it really
kinda went crazy. Then everyone got out of town," he said.
"But those first years, '65, '66, '67, it was really a great
neighborhood, the Haight-Ashbury," Mr. Kelley told Selvin. "Everybody
knew everybody. It was really fun. Everybody was really enjoying
themselves. . . . For that short period of time there, it was really
fun and we had a helluva good time. That was a long-running party."