To Bob Simmons, music posters always meant so much more than pushing a concert. Packed with coded signs and symbols, they offer a window into the culture behind the music.
Among the Austin acts that he promoted during the 1960s — the first golden age of the local music poster — was the psychedelic band the Conqueroo.
"One of the first things we did together was a show in 1965 at Bill Simonson’s 11th Door nightclub — where Symphony Square is today — and Tony Bell and I collaborated on a poster for the event," Simmons recalls. "Tony could draw like crazy; I just did some text and inserted a few old etchings for flavor.
"Psychedelia was just a gleam in our eye at that point, but we saw what a timely and cheap poster could accomplish in a short time."
Along with Joshua Lamme Hilliard, Simmons directed a new documentary, "The Poster Boys," about an assorted band of artists who created so many of the classic Austin posters from the 1960s through the early 1980s. The movie was picked up by several festivals, but we know what happened to all such events during the pandemic crisis.
So now Simmons, also co-producer, is streaming "The Poster Boys" on Vimeo for a mere $3. For its cultural history alone, it’s worth much more than that. And if $3 sounds like a lot, you can see it for free on YouTube.
Along with the ripe storytelling, it is also a feast for the eyes. Hundreds if not thousands of posters come popping, swirling and throbbing at the viewer. Add to the posters priceless moving and still images of the music scene — many of them captured by Simmons — during those years. He was also able to land more recent interviews with major players among the artists, musicians, managers, journalists and club owners, some, heartbreakingly, just before they died. Ed Fuentes’ footage of Micael Priest is most notable.
"My motivation for the film was to just get some of this history recorded so the sands of time do not cover it all up," Simmons says. "Like Kerry Awn said, ‘People may not realize it, but we did a lot of work!’ So much for the myth of lazy hippies. These guys need to be honored for their contribution to the zeitgeist."
The local stamp
Austin’s music posters — especially the psychedelic ones that promoted shows at Vulcan Gas Company, Armadillo World Headquarters and other venues — resembled some of the posters produced in San Francisco at the time. Austin and San Francisco were two must-stops on the "hippie highway," where Texans traded their peyote and pot for Californians’ LSD.
Still, the stamp of local visual culture is unmistakable.
"The posters were totally organic and specific to Texas," Simmons says. "The film says it: ‘It was like a stick in dirt, we were poor, all we could afford was pen and ink.’ So drawing was the basis of many of the posters. Micael Priest, Jim Franklin and Danny Garrett particularly: If they had a nickel for every pen hatch mark."
Simmons says that, though the early Austin posters tried to emulate the posters of San Francisco, later they evolved to a more Austintatious style.
"Humorous ‘Wanted’ posters was pretty often the theme," he says. "The artists all hung out together and loved to show off for one another. It was a really cool clubhouse."
Before going further, let’s identify the main members of the clubhouse.
From Galveston, Jim Franklin seems to have arrived on the scene with a fairly developed artistic sensibility. He was the organizer and, in some cases, the teacher among the poster artists. It was Franklin who introduced the iconic armadillo to their visual vocabulary, at first for a concert at Wooldridge Square Park. Franklin once said he felt armadillos made a perfect symbol for Texas counterculture: "We are peaceful; we mind our own business; and we’re always getting run over by rednecks."
From Dallas-Fort Worth, Micael Priest brought with him a strong background in advertising and commercial art. It was Priest who came up with the image of a sad cowboy listening to Willie Nelson, based on some brainstorming with venue manager and promoter Eddie Wilson. He was also prolific, having created from scratch 99 posters for the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Hailing from Houston, Gilbert Shelton cut his teeth with the University of Texas humor magazine, the Texas Ranger, and then the Rag, an underground newspaper. He specialized in underground comics and created Wonder Warthog and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. He worked with Franklin at Vulcan Gas. Some of his work is so intricate and mystifying, it resembles the Op Art of the day. Shelton did not stay in Austin but moved first to the East Coast and later to San Francisco for a decade.
Also from the Houston area, Kerry Awn is easily the most outgoing of the group. Awn went on to perform in the Uranium Savages, a band born at Franklin’s Ritz Theater, and with Esther’s Follies sketch comedy troupe. His oily stage character, Ronnie Velveeta, popped up in all sorts of media. He worked widely outside the poster trade, for instance as a muralist, partly responsible for some of the city’s most enduring public images.
Guy Juke proved himself a versatile artist, always testing the limits of the medium. "They do stuff other paintings can’t," Juke says in the movie. "Posters are up on walls every day." He produced 61 posters for the Armadillo. His style evolved with time and the music it represented, including a look that one observer called "cubist bebop."
Danny Garrett celebrated the meeting of hippies and cowboys in Austin nightlife during the 1970s. A history major radicalized by the Vietnam War, he also drew the seminal Space City paper in Houston and the Texas Observer. An artist who consistently reinvented the form, Bill Narum is perhaps best remembered for his ZZ Top posters.
Other artists — Sam Yeates, Henry Gonzalez, Cliff Carter, Tommy Beeson, Jose Carlos Campos, Jaxon Irwin, John Rogers — make cameo appearances in the movie, as well as in the valuable book, "Homegrown: Austin Music Posters 1967 to 1982," which accompanied an exhibit at the Wittliff Galleries at Texas State University. It contains crucial essays by Joe Nick Patoski and Nels Jacobson.
Landing at the right places at the right times, Simmons got to know almost all the "poster boys" — virtually all were men — here and in San Francisco. Several ended up in the same communal living situations with the requisite anecdotes about sex, drugs and, well, you know.
"In my years in Austin and California, I got to know most of these folks in one way or another," Simmons says. "Some from my brief stay at the Austin Chronicle, some from my radio days, and some just socially. I’ve known Jim Franklin since 1965. Some of these links go all the way back to the Texas Ranger days. … There are so many untold stories about all this. We could have made a six-hour movie and still not run out of funny stories."
Simmons credits co-director and editor Joshua Lamme Hilliard with the time warp look of the documentary.
"In keeping with the idea of lemons into lemonade, he decided to use a lot of special effects that made it look intentional," Simmons says. "One of the big issues for me is that this doc was done for very little money — it shows — where I was cameraman, light guy, sound guy and interviewer all at the same time: One-man video-making.
"Plus, animating some of the posters was fun. Make everything move. Josh asked if I had any goals. I said, ‘Keep ‘em laughing.’ Some of this is pretty funny, though not as funny as I wanted. There’s a lot of ‘after-effects’ and special plug-ins that you can find for Final Cut Pro these days. Apple has made movie-making so much easier these days."
The movie contains a good deal of philosophizing about the larger point of concert posters. First, it should be remembered that, because of costs and mainstream media constraints, other than word of mouth, posters stuck to telephone poles, bulletin boards and other surfaces were the only way to get the message out about concerts. They had to catch the eye and remain legible at the same time.
"You’ve got to be able to read it driving 35 or 40 miles an hour," Priest says in the movie, "with the wind vents open and a 44-ounce diet cherry limeade in between your bare legs. ..."
It should be remembered that the Vulcan Gas Company, 1967-1970, was one of the few houses of psychedelia not on the coasts, and it set Austin apart from other Texas cities. Like other psychedelia, the early poster images often played with what was already in the viewer’s mind. The best posters proved attractive to the uninitiated, yet the initiated felt included and invited.
Other artists picked up the lowly armadillo, sometimes pictured with drug paraphernalia, from Franklin’s original concept. They added a revolving Texas vocabulary of rattlesnakes, cacti and wide-open spaces.
Some of the most rudimentary pen-and-ink techniques were used in part because they were the least expensive methods at the time and the most easily reproduced.
Franklin: "We were creating our own world."
One of the most touching and startling elements of the movie is a black screen at the end with the simple words, "In memory of Micael Priest, Margaret Moser, Ken Featherston, Henry Gonzalez, Bill Narum and Roky Erickson and all the Austin artists gone before their time."
"I think that these posters set a style and substance for Austin's identity, for the town’s image of itself," Simmons says. "It struck a chord in the slackest of hippies and in the tech working sphere alike. It appealed to rednecks and potheads both. The music and the art are part of what turned Austin blue as opposed to the sea of red that surrounds it. As I said, art changes culture, and culture shapes history. Nothing demonstrates this so much as these posters."