By Steve Bjerklie
THE MAN WHO helped create the most famous death icon in the world–the grinning skull and roses of the Grateful Dead–is talking about quite the opposite. “At one point there were hundreds all around me, shining and floating around,” says poster artist Stanley Mouse. “One would go by and I’d say, ‘Did you see her? Did you see the golden angel?'”
Three years ago the artist underwent a liver transplant. The angels began fluttering over his bed as he woke from surgery, and he hasn’t forgotten them. “Ah, Stanley,” says a friend in Mouse’s cluttered Sonoma studio, “you were having the good kind of hallucinations.” The gentle, soft-spoken Mouse concurs, “I feel completely great. This is just where I wanted to get to with drugs.”
Mouse, whose trimmed, mossy beard and scholar’s spectacles make him look a bit like a Bolshevik two or three decades after the Revolution–which is true, in a way–stares at an image of an angel even now. She’s an angel for Jacob to think twice about, occupying the center of the gorgeous poster Mouse has painted for his old friend Don Hyde. Below her is the advertisement for the benefit concert coming up on Aug. 11, at Hyde’s Raven Theater, a show to raise money to help pay legal costs generated by a flimflam LSD charge leveled against him. The benefit features Tom Waits, T-Bone Burnett, and Sam Phillips, among others.
“We’re using ‘Storming Heaven’ because the charges were dropped,” says Mouse, who seems genuinely amazed when it’s pointed out to him that this heavenly moniker is also the title of a book published a few years ago chronicling the rise and fall of, ahem, LSD. “Really? Well, wouldn’t you know.” A hint of a prankster’s grin lights his smile.
“The angel is a way of saying that this is a happy event.” A few minutes later, Mouse pulls out a print of the dark poster he drew for the first Hyde benefit, held last spring at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. On it, a woman lies encircled by a large snake. “Don was wrapped in coils back then,” Mouse smiles. The $100 ticket for Sunday’s benefit includes a print of the new poster.
With his longtime art partner Alton Kelley, and with fellow artists Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Bonnie McLean, and the late Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse ignited the poster renaissance in 1960s San Francisco, drawing brilliant, crazy art to promote rock-and-roll dance concerts.
The best pieces are insane group marriages of image, color, lettering, and whimsy. They still laugh out loud to the eye, reflecting the splendiferous exhibitionism of the hippie ballrooms. Originally tacked up on telephone poles and given away at the shows they advertised, these mint-condition first-edition posters now command hundreds of dollars from collectors.
Further, the original posters eventually led to commissions for album covers, and the Mouse/Kelly portfolio includes some of the most famous images in all of rock: the Grateful Dead’s “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty” covers, and Journey’s “Infinity.”
Coming to the poster business indirectly, Mouse was by the early ’60s a hot-rod painting sensation, making his living painting cars and T-shirts at shows and fairs. Poking discreetly around, I find a nicely framed copy of Mouse and Kelley’s most enduring image, an Avalon poster from September 1966. The print is surprisingly small, 8 1/2 by 11. “That was the size of the original Avalon handbills,” he says. “I found the original image in the stacks of the San Francisco Public Library,” Created by 19th-century artist Edmund Sullivan as a woodcut to illustrate the 26th quatrain of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, this block print underscores the verse “The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.”
“I showed it to Kelley and said, ‘Here’s something that might work for the Grateful Dead.'”
It’s the skeleton and roses, of course. Thirty years after Mouse found it and made it the key element in the band’s powerful iconography, the shamelessly grinning skull wearing a crown of roses and admiring a pair of blooms still packs a punch. “You know, there are those who say that’s why the band lasted so long,” Mouse, the transplant survivor, says quietly. He pauses, but then comes another soft smile, a little wry, a little wistful. “Because of that image.”
Tom Waits and others appear Aug. 11 at 7 p.m. Raven Film Center, 415 Center St., Healdsburg. $100. Tickets at the Last Record Store, 525-1963 or 528-2350.
From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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