One recent morning, Stanley "Mouse" Miller and I were admiring one of
the most famous images in rock 'n' roll - the Grateful Dead's iconic
skull and roses.
Mouse and his partner, the late Alton Kelley, created it in 1966, on
the eve of the Summer of Love, for a poster for a Grateful Dead
concert at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom.
"The old story is that we got a job to do a poster for this band
called the Grateful Dead," he told me, smiling at the memory. "Nobody
knew who they were, of course. They were just another new band with a
"Every week Kelley and I would go into the public library and look
for images of something old and kind of groovy for our posters," he
said. "One day we came across a book, the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,"
and found this picture in it. We said, 'Wow, this has the Grateful
Dead written all over it.' We used it for this poster, and they made
it their logo. It's probably the most famous image we ever did."
Mouse, one of San Francisco's famed rock poster artists, had driven
his black Mercedes V-12 from his home/studio in Sebastopol to give me
a tour of "The Evolution of Stanley Mouse: Full Circle," an
extraordinary career retrospective at the Marin Museum of
Contemporary Art in Novato.
"People who come to see this show are so nostalgic," said Beryl
Miller, who curated the exhibit with Randy Pottenger. "They say, 'Oh,
I remember this.' They react to the work in a personal way because
it's so recognizable, like a Coca Cola sign.
They see it and relate to it right away."
A remarkably youthful 69-year-old, Mouse has a dark beard, wears
glasses and speaks in a near whisper, pausing thoughtfully before
He says he got his nickname in junior high because he was always
drawing quietly in the back of the classroom, and because his father
worked as an animator for the old Mouseketeer himself, Walt Disney.
"As soon as I accepted the nickname, I was instantly famous," he
remembered. "And I was only in the seventh grade."
Mouse always seems to have a smile on his face, perhaps because he
knows he's fortunate to be alive. He was on death's door in 1993 when
his life was saved by an 11th-hour liver transplant. The conventional
wisdom is that the Grateful Dead paid for the operation, but he says
that isn't the case.
After fans at a Jerry Garcia Band concert stomped their feet and
chanted, "Save Mouse, Save Mouse," the Dead stepped up and offered to
foot the bill.
"I had five minutes to live," he recalled. "If they hadn't said they
would pay for it, the doctors wouldn't have started working on me.
But they didn't pay for it. Sonoma County picked it up. So I owe
This show, the largest of his career, is a veritable history tour of
rock art. There's the Grammy-winning Pegasus album cover for Steve
Miller's "Book of Dreams;" Journey's famed scarab; the "Closing of
Winterland" poster; images of Big Brother and the Holding Company,
Blind Faith, the Jefferson Starship, Neil Young, Jimmy Hendrix, John
Lennon, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary, Steppenwolf, Tom Waits
and his good friend Janis Joplin.
The Dead are well represented by the Kelley-Mouse album cover for
"Workingman's Dead," the "Ice Cream Kid" from "Europe '72," Terrapin
Station's cartoon turtle.
The show includes portraits of four of the seven 2008 Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame inductees - Madonna, Leonard Cohen, John Mellencamp and
blues great Little Walter. They're the last pieces he created with
Kelley, who died last year.
Because his reputation is as a poster artist and advertising
illustrator, Mouse has never been taken seriously as a fine art
painter. Nevertheless, the "Evolution" show includes a roomful of his
most recent fine art work, masterful oil portraits of lovely young
women - Courtney, Amy, Rose, Erin, Emily, Serena. He calls them his
"They're all life size," he said. "I stick them around my dining room
table and have breakfast with them. When I was a kid I'd see
portraits of people like these and I'd say, 'This is what I want to
do when I grow up.' And now that I can do that, nobody cares. All
they want to see is my rock 'n' roll stuff."
Not entirely. Museum visitors get a kick out of the wild and crazy
hot rod and monster art he did when he was a teenager growing up in
Detroit, earning enough money to buy a Corvette when he was still in
"I'm doing hot rods again, which I started off doing," he said.
"There's a whole new hot rod subculture with girls dressing like
pinups and guys driving what they call 'ret rods.' They're rough and
bad ass. A lot of it is based on my old stuff."
No matter what he does for the rest of his career, Mouse will forever
be linked to the counterculture of the '60s, when he became known as
"the man who drew the face on rock 'n' roll."
"It will never be like that again," he sighed. "Psychedelics, music
and art all came together to create a phenomenal scene. It was like a
flower. It came up, bloomed and died."
IF YOU GO
- What: "The Evolution of Stanley Mouse: Full Circle"
- When: Through Nov. 1, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; 5
p.m. Oct. 17, poster and book signing
- Where: Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, 500 Palm Drive, Novato
- Admission: Free
- Information: www.marinmoca.org
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org