JOHN VAN HAMERSVELD
INTERVIEW BY JOSH LANDAU
PHOTO BY OLIVIA JAFFE
ART BY JOHN VAN HAMERSVELD
I was sitting in my room when my dad came in and said, “Hey Josh, this is John.” A tall man about his age stepped in and, with a grin, began surveying my rock and skate poster-filled walls from behind his round Lennon glasses. It honestly took me a moment to realize who it was, and then it struck me that my dad had said he was working with “The Endless Summer guy.” My brain dropped its jaw on the floor. The birth of California culture. One of the few molecules from the nucleus of surfing and skateboarding as we know it. I nerded out full on and declared my deep worship of his work. He thanked me and replied with “You know the one they always talk about…the birth of metal….BLUE CHEER.” I completely lost it. What a fucking badass thing to say. I was standing face-to-face with classic album covers to classic albums by the Stones, Beatles, Kiss, and, yes, my favorite, Blue Cheer. I told him that my good friend has his text “Vincebus Eruptum” straight from the album cover tattooed on his arm. He didn’t seem to have a remark for it, but my dad quickly said, “We’ll find out where to get him some help.” Haha. No. My buddy Barrett needs no help and somehow Van Hamersveld didn’t need much either. When you look from his surf magazine work to rock albums and posters and even Fatburger’s logo, you’d surely think he was 10 people. John is an incredibly prolific badass motherfucker whose impact and influence on 20th century youth culture is beyond measure or compare. – JOSH LANDAU
Let’s talk about the Jimmy’Z ads.
Ganzer was familiar with the success of The Endless Summer. He was also impressed, as a 17-year-old, and he wanted to become my paste-up assistant and be part of the Malibu issue [of Surf Guide], which became a well-focused article on ten Malibu surfers. Ganzer is a skateboarder and surfer, but he was like the club father to the Makaha team kids.
He kind of defined the style of the late ‘80s with all the clothes he made that the skaters were wearing.
Yeah. When we first started, it was Olson and Hackett.
Was that the original Jimmy’Z team?
Yeah. They sat at my dining room table and they were 18 or 19 at the time. Funny, I invited Michael Murphy over to my house studio in Malibu. He was a neighbor. He was the cameraman on Skaterdater for a 1965 American short film. We sat and watched it to the end. The two of them wouldn’t even talk to Michael. They didn’t know what to say. I was in my forties and Michael must have been 55. There was a huge spread of time between skate generations in the room.
What year was that?
1984. There is really no difference now. They’re still 18, with an ego the size of a freighter.
[Laughs] I met Olson for the first time in a backyard pool in Beverly Hills. He was talking to my little brother and me, because we had made these little stencils for our skate crew that said, ‘South Side Brigade.’ This was when I was 15 and my brother was 11. He was like, “Oh, is this the crew? Are you the new skate gang on the Westside?” He was just giving us a hard time, and teasing us, but also being stoked, you know? He was like, “We’ve got this permission pool, and I’ll let you know when we’re going to ride it.” The next time I saw him; he was like, “Don’t worry. We didn’t ride it yet.” He just kept teasing me.
[Laughs] In the mid ‘50s, the skateboard, for us, was a 2×4 and the converting of the old ‘40s skating shoes I didn’t want anymore, with steel wheels over onto the board. We skated at the high school because they had really smooth cement, so you could slide. We had just started surfing as well, so it was coordinated back and forth. You were getting your balance and turning and all that. In surfing, it was built into it, so I could see how that worked.
When you were younger, did you see pictures of people surfing or skateboarding anywhere?
I saw surfing through the movies at the high school. That would be like the Bud Browne Surf Films. Every year, as a filmmaker, he brought a surf newsreel of what was going on in California and Hawaii. As with all changes, as it moved towards defining the ‘60s, there were more filmmakers and it became kind of saturated.
I hear skateboarding just kind of crept into the surfing movies here and there.
The skateboard really doesn’t kick in until Makaha creates itself in 1963. That’s when Larry Stevenson created Makaha Skateboards. Overnight, within a year, boom, like the hula-hoop phenomenon, skateboarding became huge. I was 22 then, and I was Art Director of Surf Guide magazine, and we saw Larry kind of lose it. We didn’t realize that Chicago Wheels became so competitive with all the other skateboard manufacturers, so he lost control of being first. All of a sudden, he was overloaded with orders he could not ship. There were 12 manufacturers doing the same thing with Chicago wheels, so they were being shipped to other manufacturers, and not to his compound. Stevenson goes through this freak out and creates his own wheels and this foam plastic skateboard, and that didn’t go very well, so it was over.
Makaha had it for a minute and then the boom just created too much competition for them?
Right. The argument was that he really created the kicktail and he had the patent and he was suing them all for years, but he completely lost it all.
What year was this?
It was 1964 and 1965, and continued over the decades to his demise.
Well, what’s odd is that the opposite of that, the nose, didn’t come along until 1989 or 1990. It took that much longer to put something on the other side.
Yeah, with the surfboard you had the concave in the front and the kicktail in the back, so how do you bring that over and how does that function in the skateboard world?
The kicktail on a skateboard, you can’t even estimate what a revolution that was.
Yeah. Between the ages of 21 to 23, I skated a lot. The Makaha and Surf Guide office was at 26th and Broadway in Santa Monica. I would come from P.V. and we would go up to Palisades High School because the asphalt was really smooth. They had one hill where we could do our ski moves, with poles or without poles; slalom, per se. Down lower, there were bank areas where you could go up and come down. From my perspective, that became the real treat. We weren’t so hooked to skiing anymore. A lot more kids looked to surfing and skateboarding and left out skiing as too expensive. Skating was cheap!
“There’s this conformity world and here are these right-wing crazies trying to drive the establishment into this brick wall. Conformity can’t break out of itself. They can’t control the revolution that’s going on in government and politics. Then who is hip?”
At some point, skateboarding became the main focus for people. It wasn’t the ‘after surfing activity.’ It fully took over.
Well, in surfing, in the ‘50s, for my generation, we were breaking away from the redwood plank. It was being cut down to 9 feet, and made out of balsa wood, so there’s not very much redwood on it, so it weighs 40 pounds and you can carry it under your arm. It’s 19-23 inches wide. You could get speed and flotation, depending on what you wanted. You could shove it into the front seat of your car, so that became a whole world to all these kids. They could take their mother’s car and go for the weekend somewhere. In California, all along the coastline, the surfboard was being engaged by these kids. They would probably go to high school and someone would show them a surfing movie at their auditorium and then they would go home and ask their dad for a board. Then the board market started. Velzy & Jacobs were really turning them out and then came Hobie and all that stuff. The most important thing was, at the end of all these streets that had surf breaks, there was either a drainage course, that had sand and reefs or it was a bay. The cove at Palos Verdes had a swell that broke three times. It was slower than beach break, and the new surfboards could turn quickly and run for a while. You could pull back and kick out. In the winter, when the North swell would hit, there would be these huge lines coming from the North. You had these big walls of water that were 8-10 feet, which made the beach break just unrideable, so you had to go some place else. You’d go to Redondo Breakwater, Haggerty’s, Bluff Cove or Lunada Bay.
I’m sure you saw that when the boards got shorter, there was the tradition of some guys that said, “Oh, that’s not surfing, doing all those turns and stuff.”
Well, as the psychedelic ‘60s hit, the boards became really wild and painted and they started slimming them down and making them smaller. By the time you get to the early ‘70s, there’s Shaun Tomson and P.T. They were positioned with a whole gang of people to thrust forward, and the surfing magazines were looking at them. When you get to the ‘80s, there were all these manufacturers of surfboards and clothing. In ‘83, Op comes up with a t-shirt that made them $180,000,000 in one summer.
Those shirts went all over the world. They had one big huge truck full of garments coming into the factory and then leaving printed on the other end, constantly coming in and going out. During ‘92, I was hooked up with these Japanese companies in Tokyo and they would come to the U.S. and travel all over the place and get these big bundles of t-shirts that had Op prints on them. They would be belted up and packed, so they would bring them over to Torrance and open up the package and try to fumigate them and put them on hangers. Then they’d put them into cartons and fly them to Japan and sell them for $80 or $90 each. That showed you how powerful Op was, even in a secondary market in later years.
That shows you the power of the world that you saw start when those movies were just being played in high school. That’s pretty insane.
Yeah. Well, one of the publicity women from the Oceanside area, Keiko, said the other day that I was the important person that made surfing a mass culture. In a way, the three people I surfed with were a couple of years older and it really was like The Endless Summer of the ‘50s. I walk into this movie idea and I understand the journey. I was in design school at Art Center College of Design and I’m working at Surfer magazine, which was this infant in a new industry, and I make this statement with an image. It’s the way I lived at that time. It’s so predictable, in a way, in terms of design history. The modern movement was there at that school. Things were minimal and colorations were one flat color against another. Then you had the printed graphic thing there with four colors and you had the James Bond movie posters with these high contrast photographs as a title treatment and the movie title sequence. In these books, they had all these different effects. There were straight lines and line resolution, so I took that photograph and made a line resolution of it.
For someone who has only fucked a little with an image in Photoshop, explain to me, that process of putting it to the photo?
Well, to be specific about it, it’s a continuous tone photo 4×5 negative shot at Salt Creek on the beach, and then you make what they called an Ortho Film Negative. I would change the film from continuous tone, black and white. In the darkroom, you would make a line resolution in high contrast. In that transformation from continuous tone to the line resolution positive, then you made a photo print out of it in black and white, so you had these black figures as a positive that could be put over the colors, which were just cut paper. You show that to them and they say, “Oh, I see what you mean.” But they were still confused. If you showed them the photograph as a print, and explained the color you would use, they couldn’t put it together. You would talk it out with them, but they didn’t understand. It was all like magic, as I developed the process.
From a sophisticated art school, I went down to a very primitive emerging surf culture. The surfers were more Bohemian in the ‘50s. By the ‘60s, they were all clean-cut. Apparently, from Severson’s point of view, you could put a suit on a surfer and make it look like a Jansen ad or something like that. Severson, Surfer Magazine publisher, spent time at the golf course, and we had to take the pages from Surfer Magazine over to the golf course to show him. That was the ‘60s. In the ‘50s, he was right there at Trestles with his Volkswagen truck and all his cameras.
It’s interesting if you think about the music of the ‘50s and how it went into the ‘60s.
Well, we listened to jazz all the time then. I didn’t like Elvis. We liked the blues. The Hawaiian guitar was always present at the beaches at night around the campfires.
It was like the soundtracks of the movies being played in school.
[Laughs] Yeah. Now, 50 years later, I’m driving around Palos Verdes in my Mercedes and I have the jazz on and it’s like, “What’s the difference? It’s still the same.”
I’ve done so much research on music from the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s. In the ‘70s, surfing was really outlaw and bohemian, and, by the ‘80s, it had become really straight.
Yeah, it had started to become corporatized. It sounds like what you’re talking about that happened in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Well, in a way, the industry was cutting it. They divided their clothing to Men’s and Boy’s. The Boy’s market was relatively colorful and creative and the Men’s line had to be more formal, because they were dating and whatnot. With something like Quiksilver, they could sell the shit out of floral patterns, every year, all cut up into these wonderful trunks. Billabong and all these other companies started following them. When Jimmy’Z came along, that was an entirely different look. It was an entirely different pair of trunks.
Yeah, and he wasn’t a big company like Quiksilver. He was a dude that was at the park and at the beach with Olson and Hackett.
Yeah. I helped him get his funding, one day, when I was in the James Corcoran Gallery. James had a Texas millionaire with him. I hyped Ganzer’s idea and, later, they gave him the money and everything went forward, to my surprise. I had been hanging out with Corcoran in Malibu on the weekends. So I helped Ganzer into the first trade show with a promotion and then they sort of swiped some day-glow coloring from The Endless Summer poster. The poster was in a frame leaning against the wall of the Malibu Studio. Behind the scenes, Ganzer made some orange and pink Jimmy’Z trunks and sold them out. At the time, I was working on my 360-foot Olympic mural that wrapped around the Coliseum. Also, John Lydon had me working on his Public Image, Ltd. album and video. He wanted it to look like my Rolling Stones, Exile album campaign in the ‘70s. Lydon said to me, “Exile set the look of punk.” It was quite a summer.
Those fluorescent colors became the basis for a lot of people’s business models.
Yeah. Jimmy’Z had $160,000 in orders the first day of the trade show. The first year was like $5,000,000. The second year was $16,000,000 and by the next year it was $32,000,000 and then $50,000,000 and then they went broke.
Yes. Business is a very interesting process. When you’re building your business, the kind of money that you have is little scraps here and there and, essentially, you have to meet somebody that wants to lend you money, but they want equity in your company in exchange, so you give away 42% or you split two 25% or something like that. That was the difficulty. The people behind those percentages at Jimmy’Z, didn’t have the capital to support a $50,000,000 order. Then you have to sell the company and hope that you become the executive of it. So they sold it to Op. Well, Op’s particular position on it was that the advertising structure that I had put together was so strong in their environment, and had everybody by the balls, so they couldn’t really realize doing anything with it, and they just wanted to put it out of business, and continue with their design and their promotion. Jimmy’Z had earned itself up to $50,000,000 in orders, but Op was up to $500,000,000. They were a monster. After three seasons, they shelved the company and, later, sold it.
“When we look at Hendrix, we look at the art as a recognizable portrait of him, but it also has the other emphasis to it because he has this electric hair. In the music business, you have guys looking at him like, “Here’s this guy that took the Fender guitar and disassembled it and re-assembled it in a different way and set it on fire.”
In three years, in that transition from ‘87 to ‘90, they lost Jimmy’Z and had to sell the company to Op. Of that $50,000,000 gross sales in orders, $30,000,000 of it was the licensee’s. It was the Jimmy’Z licensee that I would work with from my studio in Malibu, separate from Jimmy’Z. The licensee just wanted the images I developed. The t-shirt concession was where all the money was and a separate licensee owned that. In the end, Op and the buyer paid Ganzer and his wife splits of the partnership with the investors. Ganzer got his share of $250,000, and then his wife had divorced him, and she was also a partner, so he only got $125,000 for five years of work. It’s like smoke. It was gone in six months, but he was paid by Op as the bank idea for the business, which was good. Ganzer ended up holding the bag of nothing, from the initial idea of the Jimmy’Z brand, which was Ganzer’s version of the Z-Boys coming out of the community.
That’s unbelievable. Thinking back, the possibility of it sprang from the grassroots beach rat culture that you saw right here in the ‘50s.
In high school, as surfers, there were maybe 25 of us in a school of 500 kids at El Segundo High School. Then you had the Mira Costa crew. Everywhere you went, there was a small group of people and everyone had a nickname. The nicknames then got hooked to the movies and then, all of a sudden, everybody knew who Dora was. That nickname had been communicated through the films.
When you started drawing, or when you were going to school, aside from looking at books and new methods that were coming out, whose stuff were you looking at?
Well, in Palos Verdes, there was a place called PV Plaza Fountain. There was a liquor store and they had a magazine section and a fountain for drinks. At that young age, you could see a Playboy magazine, in the mid’ 50s, which everyone would try to see, look and open, without getting busted.
Then there was Mad Magazine and it was really quite amazing. The drawing helped define me. I remember being with Gary Weis, in the ‘70s, and he was working at Saturday Night Live. We were in his office one day and he wanted to explain something to me and he went to a magazine and found a picture that was like it and explained it through that. The drawing prop is one thing and the photo prop is another. Now we live in a referential culture of Google and now all of it is available through these devices. Now when you need to refer to something, you don’t go to your head, you go to the web. You go into that dream to find it and you type in the words and the images are explained. Is that good or bad?
It’s less creative and less productive.
Well, you could say that it’s creative because it creates itself. Through that you enhance your perception because it’s defining what you assume. When you draw, you think the same way. You sketch something and then you sketch it again and again, until it solidifies itself. Then you see if you can reproduce that. You see highlights that aren’t there and you reference with the world as a three-dimensional theatre as a way of developing prototypes or samples that you draw out and repeat. The live world, the organic world, has smell and dimension and color. It’s not contrived in a photograph for you. You see it and experience it, so you have a heightened perception. When primitive man comes out of the cave and he looks out and sees the bird in the tree, he sees it in his mind and he knows that tree and that bird so well, and it’s combining in his mind. And then he goes back into the cave and he sketches on the cave wall what he saw. He draws the tree and the bird. So you’re drawing with the mind, aren’t you? When you’re drawing within these devices, it’s limited, isn’t it? It’s what Google has. Ten years ago, Google wasn’t so organized. It wasn’t that deep, so it’s changed a lot. Now it’s very enriched and there’s this tremendous amount of stuff on any subject.
It used to be a tool to find great stuff, until they changed it.
For me, within the family, drawing was a way of developing perception and receiving and assuming something and then drawing it. As a child, going to art school, it was more channeled. I had to learn to draw a certain way, and that way being realistic. I learned about the Roman drawings and perspective and the images worked out on paper. You had to think about it and then draw it.
People don’t really work like that anymore. Instead of your family drawing out everything for you, they taught you to learn about things and draw it yourself.
Yeah. Let’s take this chair. On Saturday morning, we can go to the lumber store and get wood and bring it back and find the tools to cut into it and assemble it and put it together. It’s all based on an idea. That’s what the show was about, Drawing Attention. It’s a very loaded title.
We went to Northridge and saw it and it was an amazing show. You walk in and you’re just blown away at the depth of what you’ve done. You can’t believe it’s the work of just one guy. There were all these different styles and colors. I was interested to find out if you had a specific philosophy on your productivity. Are you hard on yourself?
That’s a good place to land for a discussion. You want to work or you’re told to work for money. Doing your own work, you’re not getting paid for that. You’re just building this perception, so I divided my life that way. When I was able to break away from Roman drawing and my earlier education at Art Center, which was very traditional, I had a new teacher, Eva Dickstein, who was sort of a beatnik. She came over to the drawing board and said, “John, you’re so good at that kind of drawing, but that’s not you.” That’s where it started. Three years later, here comes the Hendrix portrait artwork.
That was good encouragement because that Hendrix poster was huge.
It was huge. People loved it. It was a drawing of a photograph. It was a portrait within that poster and they never really did portraits. It was always abstract collages of mystical images. When we look at Hendrix, we look at the art as a recognizable portrait of him, but it also has the other emphasis to it because he has this electric hair. In the music business, you have these guys looking at him like, “Here’s this guy that took the Fender guitar and disassembled it and re-assembled it in a different way and set it on fire.”
He gave more life to it than it ever had.
Right. He hung out in London, so he was really the dude. He had all these clothes from Kings Road and he went to the hair salon. Seeing Hendrix’ head and seeing Eric Clapton with the same hairdo, it was just a trend in London. It’s Jimi coming here and going through the Southwest and putting on the black hat with a concho belt across it, and he had the Indian bag…
He pulled a few different things from a few different cultures.
Right. When you went to De Voss, which was the rock n’ roll clothing store on Sunset, I met Jimi there a couple of times, they were all looking for these exotic pieces, coats, jackets, hats and shoes, like the Beatles wore or the Rolling Stones wore. Between London and the L.A. De Voss store, the buyers were back and forth and the media was taking photographs of it all and playing it back for all these people and it was the whole changing of the costume.
It became a form of communication between here and there.
Yeah. If you weren’t wearing the right duds, you weren’t a dude. You weren’t a hippie.
You were going to get treated differently. You might not get into the show.
[Laughs] Right. The nicest part of that transition, from the mid ‘50s, was the beatnik environment with its pot and weird mysticism and spoken word poetry and jazz and jargon. All of those ingredients become symbolic. Rick Griffin is a great example of that. He takes those out of context and brings them over to the ‘60s and re-establishes them and makes this symbolic dialogue. He takes Murphy out of the surfing world and makes him psychedelic. He takes his drawing style, after some Peyote, and shows you a Mexican Indian.
From the ‘50s to the ‘60s, the most important part was all the people coming back from the war and having the G.I. Bill and a lot of them went to art school. Then you had the combination of music and spoken word transition into a very slick form of folk music and jazz and be-bop. Hendrix saw something that was lost in the verbal be-bop or scat. Underneath that you have the 22-year-olds going to college, which kind of snaps at all of the universities. So you have two years of hippies and then two years of revolution and denial. “I hate my parents. I hate the war. I hate the food. I hate the air. Why can’t we have a better life?” By the ‘70s, you had all these guys that had been living in San Francisco in the city, moving to the country, so there was a new social dialogue. He would become like the Mad comic book.
In your book, you say that the revolution never existed. I never heard anyone say that. It’s an interesting thought. Most people say, “The revolution was happening, but we didn’t make it all the way.” Or, “It was going to happen and then we got shut down.” You saw it differently.
Well, the Beatles conformed. It came from blues into a compromise and then they became psychedelic because everyone at their shows was smoking pot in the back room with the beatniks. Jazz is a very important part of this, because jazz really comes out of blues, so they’re writing poetry and lyrics and composing and smoking pot to loosen up and look at the world in a different way. That behavior creates a sensibility and a fashion and a social position. This is so important. I made my choice to get rid of the ‘60s, the Beatles and all of it; we were in denial. It was a whole pseudo fabricated media revolution. By the ‘70s, I wanted out. I had to get a job, stop all drugs. It was a strange trip.
It’s the obsessive fantasy of it that never actually materialized.
Yes. It was like a facade. In the ‘90s, the punk thing was three decades old. It was just dress up.
It’s the same thing that happened to hip-hop ten years after. It’s just a different distortion or level of anger. When you were seeing Jimmy’Z develop, how did that go?
Well, Op had a standard look and it was huge. I lived in Malibu and Ganzer and the other fellow lived in Santa Monica. They came to me in Malibu and so Jimmy’Z was really about introducing Malibu to people through these photographs of the lifestyle. That was the juxtaposition of Jimmy’Z to Op. With the Malibu thing, you could make it wilder and more edgy.
Op was just trying to be straight.
Right. In 1980, I was coming from 15 years of Hollywood. The record business had started to change, so I was just ending that and starting something new. I was getting rid of Hollywood and melting back into Malibu and starting to surf again. I’m driving down to the city every day and I’d stop in Malibu, like I did when I was 15 or 16. One day, I stopped and looked down to the pit through the fences and I saw Lance Carson, who is a good friend of mine from the ‘60s. I got out of the car and walked down the stairs out onto the sand, and as I came up, Carson was in the middle of doing what all surfers do, which is play-acting some situation, and everyone was laughing. He saw me and said, “The Hammer!” That was my nickname from the ‘50s. I said, “Lance, you’re making surfboards now, I understand. Can you make me a board?” He said, “Sure. Just give me $800.” So I went and got $800 at the bank and gave it to him and he had the surfboard ready in about six weeks.
That’s awesome. There are certain things that you pick up on and never forget. I haven’t surfed in four or five years, but every time I drive up the PCH, I’m looking.
So we’ve gotten that far. The board has been made and I have racks on the car. I’m folding back into this wonderful surf lifestyle that I lived in P.V., but I don’t have Phil Becker or any of the guys I hung out with in high school, so it’s kind of empty. I start surfing and I’m an old guy with this big 9’6” yellow board shaped by Lance and I’m surfing Third Point. There are these steep waves and peaks and all of these short boards out there. I’m getting waves, but guys are dropping in behind me and going down and cutting underneath, so there were fights. They were pissed off at me, so I went somewhere else. It took a little while to become part of the tribe. One morning, there was a surf contest and Henry Ford was there. He said, “John, we’re going to have this expression session. Do you want to be part of it?” I said, “Sure. Great.” So I got my board and about 18 people who I surfed with in the ‘50s, were all out in the water surfing these small three-foot waves. I’m looking at the shoreline and there is this huge crowd, like a football field full of people, and they’re all cheering, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” [Laughs] Normally, at five o’clock, there’s nobody there, and you’re surfing alone, or you might know one other person. All these guys in the water were doing all these poses from the ‘50s. It was a great illusion. For a few minutes, I was in the ‘50s in the ‘80s.
It’s crazy how something like that can bring you back in time, that action of surfing or the style of a certain rider.
For all of us, style is archetypical. It’s all about the portrait or the profile and the physique. You could look out there and see somebody that you knew by how they surfed. It also tells you that all types of people go out into the water, and a lot of blondes go surfing for some reason or another. [Laughs] The blondes are attracted to the sun and the beach life.
The Endless Summer poster and the movie were big successes. When did you realize that thing you had done that day would have not only great success, but would last forever?
Let’s put it this way. I did the poster in 1963 and it’s a hit in 1966, so that’s three years later. During that time, I went through Chouinard and I was just starting Pinnacle Concert Happening. I was still in art school and then my posters were in all of these ads in the New York papers. The kids brought in the newspaper and said, “John, I heard this was your poster. My God, how did you do that?” So I made a call to Warren Miller. I had all these great people to turn to because of being creative and how we met each other over pieces of paper. Warren had a PR agent and he called me. This was 1967. I’m at Capitol Records and I’m the Art Director for Brown Meggs who had signed the Beatles to the label. I was his personal Art Director. It was a job I just couldn’t turn down. That was it. His background was that he was a New Yorker, so he had seen the campaign and seen the poster, so part of me getting the job was that, but I didn’t know that. The way it is with me is that I never know what’s happening. I’m subjugated to it in particular situations. I’m not sure how studied everybody is about me. I just assume they don’t know anything. It’s a new introduction. By the time I showed the poster in one office, the guy picks up a The Endless Summer album cover and shows it to me. All of a sudden, I did an album cover, because the poster was on the album cover now. I go up to do the interview with this executive and he’s seeing all of it. He saw me as this kid that was doing posters and album covers and he thought I was right in the scene. He thought, “The Endless Summer and The Beatles are synonymous. He can be the Art Director.”
Was that album the movie soundtrack?
So you became an album artist by association?
[Laughs] Yeah. It was by default and by association. That’s the way it goes. That’s the way it slips in between all this stuff, the media. Then I’m at the office and people are getting to know me and I have no idea the way they’re looking at me. They all know I’m a surfer from California, and they were all from New York, but the guy that I first interviewed with was a Hawaiian beach boy. There again, he was already there, in terms of me being part of something. The New York phone call comes in at my office at Capitol and it turns out that The Endless Summer was going to be distributed to all of these colleges in the U.S. The publicity guy at Warren Miller’s office had been to a trade show and told me it was a hit there. I was like, “What is this all about? I’m losing out. I’m not making any money here. Someone is selling all this stuff everywhere. I made that art three years ago in Dana Point for these unsophisticated surfers. How did this happen? It’s Bruce’s property. So I call my attorney and asked if he could call Bruce and he does. I intimidated Bruce Brown. He was confused. I guess he didn’t think of giving me anything. I was 24 years old and I was just trying to make a living, so I was like, “Please.” Nothing happened with him, but the Warren Miller publicity guy gave me the number for the guy in New York that’s distributing the poster. I called him, and he said, “Hey, how are you? I can’t believe what’s going on here. We’re going to come and see you, my wife and I, and we’re going to take you to lunch.” So here I am, a hippie in a Victorian house, with art school around me. I’m in a job where I have to wear a suit and look like a rock star at Capitol Records. I had on my jeans and torn shirts and antique clothes and my long hair. I had to go to these disco things with strobe lights in this psychedelic environment. So this guy rolls into town with his wife and they come to the studio and then we go to lunch and he’s so thankful and ingratiating. Every time I went to New York, he’d give me money. He’d write a big check and cash it right there, and I’d go off to London with $4,000 and blow through it and have just enough to get back to New York. I’d end up back over there again and his wife would say, “Oh, you need a sandwich from the deli. You’re so thin. What have you been doing with yourself?”
[Laughs] How did you end up getting away from New York and getting back to California to do the Pinnacle shows?
In ‘67, as I’m finishing the Beatles package, I’m starting this happening called Pinnacle. I had already pitched it as a grant to Chouinard, but I couldn’t get anyone to work on it, so I made it a larger community where the shows were put on at the Elk’s Hall for the art students. Then I wanted to put on shows that were bigger than that, so I had to go to the Shrine, and we got a permit for the Shrine. So I did the first campaign and organized all the people for the light show. I was the producer. I was doing all of it.
I know you were doing all of that, but did you want to be?
Well, I’d fly into San Francisco and I’d see Rick in the back of the Avalon and they were asking me to live there. I said, “L.A. is more interesting.” I was in Hollywood getting paid and meeting all these people, but I was getting all these postcards from people in San Francisco and it was a whole brand new scene. I was like, “If I create this happening and join my art school friends into the business of culture and bring in the musicians who are the soundtrack to it and bring all that together as a fashion center with strobe lights and light shows and sound systems, we can charge $3.50 a person and put on these parties.”
“From a sophisticated art school, I went down to a very primitive emerging surf culture. The surfers were more Bohemian in the ‘50s. By the ‘60s, they were all clean-cut. Apparently, from Severson’s point of view, you could put a suit on a surfer and make it look like a Jansen ad or something like that.”
When Cream were playing and Big Brother, and you were the producer, and all this was going on were you freaking out or tripping out like, “Okay, I have to make sure the band is okay and the sound is good.” Were you freaking out?
Well, I was older then. I was 26 and my two partners were 23 and 22. I was like the father of it. They would ask me to come to the meetings when it got serious and I’d be the heavy.
When the shows were going on, were you freaking out on the music and enjoying it or were you managing the whole situation?
Well, people were asking me to come to various parts of the room when there were problems or they needed my advice.
I’ve been reading your autobiography, My Art/My Life.
Well, there’s pot being smoked and the security guards that we hired were from the university police. When they saw that, I had to come in and be the heavy.
What happened after you explained it to them?
They just sort of backed off. Why make people’s lives harder?
You were putting it on, so your word went?
Right. As a group, we’d always talk out all that stuff. The producer has an idea and gets the script and crew together. You’re constantly involved with all of these different people through the end of the event while you produce it, so that’s what I was doing.
Those shows became legendary.
Absolutely. That was a very important year, because it all falls apart at the end of that year, going into ‘69. I’m in London and the Beatles were breaking up in front of me. People were dying because of cocaine and heroin coming in. It wasn’t just psychedelics anymore. Most of our shows were psychedelic bands. There were other production companies too and they brought in The Doors, and it was all drunks with pills. Frank Zappa was like that too. When you booked these shows, you had the social environment that came with it and you had to deal with that crowd.
What was the Blue Cheer crowd like?
They were into downers, pot and psychedelic drugs like acid.
I’m a big Blue Cheer fan. I was reading the stories about Gut. He was their everything guy. He did this and that and whatever, and sometimes he played drums.
Gut was a Hell’s Angel from San Bernardino and he went to jail for stealing cars. He was a thug, in a way, yet he went to San Francisco and started hanging out with Ken Kesey, and he was part of the bus scene there when acid became psychedelic. Gut had a notorious reputation and San Francisco was this blossoming thing, so we had Hell’s Angels doing security. I would be walking down the sidewalk with him and they would look at Gut and say, “Oh, wow. He’s here.” He became a god through that culture as much as Rick Griffin was a god. He would introduce me to the other poster artists and I would fly there every Tuesday for years.
When I get interested, I get interested and I become a part of it. It’s like surfing, you run that gamut of ten years and then you go to art school. Well, art school is like surfing, it’s just different content. Then you get through that, and you go to these shows at art school and you realize that the artists are hipper than the musicians. The musicians are coming to art school to get hip. That was the bizarre part of it. [Laughs] They were like, “Oh, you’re an artist? You’re hipper than we are.” So you get into the music scene. And then it was like, “It goes all the way up to the Rolling Stones. That’s how hip he is. We’re going to use him.” I had the reputation of being part of all of those different cultures in the ‘50s. Then you become like a Rolling Stone. The most interesting parts of the affiliations with these people come then, like, because I sat with Mick Jagger, I’m like Mick Jagger. People are looking at me in that same way and I’m put into a higher level because of that context. Then I go into architecture because I had friends from art school that were moving into the architecture scene, and those guys were just like surfers again. I got involved with them and found a place where I could do signage. Then I somehow stumbled into this Fat Burger thing. It’s so amazing how it works. The key to it is being hip. [Laughs] I was taken to be introduced to Chris Blackwell, the mogul of the record business, by this big huge 300-pound black dude. Chris was looking at me like, “You’re really hip. I want you to work for me.”
[Laughs] It’s really interesting how these different cultures give to each other and take from each other.
Yes. Blackwell needed somebody to help him spend his $300,000,000 and convert it into hotels. He’s hip. He introduced himself to the hotel world and got lined up with all the very best hotels and then he does these incredible hotels and leaves the music business behind, but realizes that music is like everything, so he was bringing hip to the rooms. He had the right CD players and the right sheets and the right this and the right that.
Tell me about sitting there with those photographs of Mick Jagger and him drawing on them?
So we’re in that living room and Keith is sitting on the couch and Mick is looking at The Endless Summer and Jefferson Airplane art and they were looking at each other and me like, “This is the hip thing.” I have a Crazy World t-shirt on and they’re looking at that, and they had seen that in London already, so they were like, “Oh, he’s hip.” [Laughs] So I sit down with them on this ottoman and we’re talking about this album artwork and here comes the hippest guy ever, Robert Frank. He’s like a 50-year-old and we’re in our thirties. He did these incredible photographs and made this book and they were all like, “God, that guy is hip!” [Laughs] So I turned to Jagger and I said to him in his ear, “He’d be great for the cover.” We had gone through a bunch of ideas before that, and so there I am. So Mick gets up and starts talking to him. At that point, the album was called Exile, but Frank takes them down to, of all places, Main Street L.A., and makes these little films. Then they go back to Bel-Air and he goes back to New York. He takes those films and develops them and cuts them up into these little strips in the darkroom and makes up these collages. I got this call to come to the mansion again and so I’m walking down these hallways and I go to the back and there’s this dining room table and everyone is there and Jagger says, “Here, sit right next to me.” So I sit next to him and Keith is standing across the way with these mirrored glasses on and he looks terrible. He’s been to this photo session with Norman Seeff and fucked it all up and fell over. Their manager, Marshall Chess, is on one side with this stack of collages from Robert Frank and he’s getting ready to hand them around and Mick says, “Well, just give them to John because he’s hip.”
[Laughs] He’s hip.
‘He’s a seasoned artist because he’s from the art school.’ Then they said, “This should be the front and not the back.” I said, “That’s fine, but how do you turn it into a package?” I had this reputation for making all these great packages, Norman Seeff and I. So we had the trend going on right there. Norman Seeff, from South Africa, a beatnik, soccer player, doctor turned photographer… Hip!
That’s amazing. You have flowed in and out of all these different worlds.
You always have to worry about who you become. Being hip, sometimes, was not good. When particular decades got very conservative, you sort of didn’t even exist. You were transparent. Then you’d position yourself to be hip again in the next decade. It’s the same in the music business. It’s hip and then bland and hip and then bland. In the ‘90s, you had Snoop Dogg coming in there, and he was a jailed person and he was making fantastic records about being in this Compton neighborhood. Here I was, being driven around every day by this huge guy in a BMW 7, who worked for Chris Blackwell, as his Vice President of the Fatburger franchise. Chris liked Forest because Forest was Chico Hamilton’s son, the jazz drummer, and his godfather was Miles Davis. Miles Davis was a really good friend of Chris Blackwell. I think they did heroin together in the later ‘50s. So here I am riding along with this guy who was doing drug deals. Forest had a big 700 BMW to take all these people around. There I was in the middle of that. I was their white boy, and they would call me a white boy to my face. Forest was like a manager for black bands. Entertainment is interesting. That’s the first time I’ve laid that out, the coincidence of being hip. That’s what we’re trying to say, “There’s something happening here, but I don’t know what it is.”
You have done so many different things. Did you think, once you had success with The Endless Summer poster, that you should do more art just like it?
You’re never really given that opportunity because usually they cut you off, and it’s usually the client.
They don’t want you to do that?
Right. They’re possessive because that’s what they paid for. Creativity is about the transformation of an idea. Because it’s being transmitted over to this other person, that person gets the copyright for it because they paid you. So they have control of it and that’s the difficulty. As a creative person, you really can’t do the same thing over again for the next person or it would piss off the client and get them into a lawsuit against each other. Everything had to be original within that business, and you had to be creative to be able to do that and be flexible and multi-disciplined and all these things.
That’s what I’m acknowledging. You didn’t just do one thing and keep doing it over again. You had to keep coming up with something new.
The thing is, that was funny between my rep and I. I would say, “Oh, we’re back into that thing where the client says, ‘Do your thing, John?” I was like, “What is that?’” But then you do your thing and bring it to them and the politics are so ugly about what it is and will it work. They’re all neurotic about it like, “This hip stuff is terribly difficult to understand. Who is this for?”
“The Beach Boy was hip in Hollywood and throughout the land. The Beach Boys were the guys that were hip. They walked on water.”
They want it until they actually see it and then they’re afraid of whether it’s really going to fly or not.
Right. So things are formed in this sort of tension, which is really what creativity is. It’s two oddities coming together and becoming a new thing. Music is the same way. Creativity is opposing forms that come together in a different way. It’s the same thing about hipness too. It’s two different things coming together to form a new thing. It’s the creative process. Two things that are similar may come together and not form anything but an argument. It still looks like something else. The other thing is that you’re no more than your experiences. A lot of it was that I had all these experiences, so I was able to stand back from it and understand. As Clapton said, “Drugs helped me advance my perception to a different level.”
As you know, if someone gives you a violin, you have to put it to your chin and then you have this bow and these individual strings coming together to make these sounds. How does that ever happen? How does that person perceive that note in that position at just the right time? It’s perception. You keep playing it over and over again until you become it. As a design instructor at Cal Arts, with 20 art students in front of me, they have no idea what’s about to happen. I take them through an experience and, all of a sudden, they’re enhanced and they have a new way of looking at things. Their perception is deeper. I learned that from surfing. My father didn’t teach me. My mom didn’t teach me. What taught me were the people around me, because surfing is a copy sport. You learn by copying that form and that position and those speeds, and how to break out of it and how to get into it. With a band, being in unison with the drumbeat, is a perception really. There’s Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce just in harmony together, both doing their little vignettes, in some sort of beat relationship, and Clapton is just going up and down through it.
And it sounds amazing.
When they were into that, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is more to a beat. When they would do that, they were on speed, at that particular moment, in 1968. Being filmed at Albert Hall in London, they were way different than they were, in ‘66, when they got on British TV with these few songs. All of a sudden, they were on. They were deep in this raga that was jazz and not rock.
After a few years of playing together they developed an unconscious way of communicating.
Right. You bring up the principle of all of it, which is this interesting paradigm of the unconscious. The unconscious is you and all of your experiences. If you don’t have the experience, you don’t have the consciousness. You gain the consciousness, which just becomes a part of you. You don’t know it, but it’s this experience and you have this perception. You perceive the world from a different point of view. It’s like someone who goes to war and comes back with a different way of looking at the world. It’s what they endure, and what their unconscious is. Maybe they have a smile on their face, but they’re trying to fight with you and you don’t understand that it’s in them and not you. They’re just using you in the middle of this relationship and you can’t figure out, “Where did this guy come from? What’s he doing?” Or there is a person who murders somebody from the unconsciousness. It’s a self-destructive process that is psychically embedded in that person and that is what they want to do when they get upset. That’s been built-in and they’re unconscious of it, but then they bring it to consciousness just like that. Skateboarding is the same thing. How many times have you been around the pool and done same thing over and over?
It’s interesting when you think about people who invented stuff and pushed boundaries. Most of skateboarding is conformity. You see someone doing something and you try it. There is so much copying; it’s hard to see how anything new comes about.
It’s a lot of copying the poses to find yours.
It’s like a line they’ve drawn in a pool. You know it’s possible, because they’ve done it.
Right. They bring it to you and then you try to perform it. Sometimes you go beyond that and it becomes something new. Perception is a really important thing in the rules of life. If you don’t let yourself go, you don’t learn these things. You’re limiting your perception. The Buddhists say that you’re transcending yourself. You’re transcending your unconsciousness that you had before into a new one. Buddhism is changing that around and presenting a new self. They have all these different ways and chants and experiences to do that, for a person to change into a new self.
They’re giving them a new perception.
Yeah. So in this technological keyboard world that we live in, it’s not the same. Your phone gets deeper. [Laughs] Google has created a bigger experience.
Or a smaller one.
You still need to have these experiences instead of just learning about them by looking at a photo online.
Right. When you went to the Drawing Attention show, all of that was going on. You’re just blown away by the perception of it. It’s out of order. Like, “Whoa. Where am I? I don’t understand this at all.” But the way it’s laid out, if you swooped through it, you had to get it as you leave. You were being exposed to my perception.
Right. I’ve never seen a wave like that before, that color. It’s also not a part of tangible reality, but it’s reflective of emotions that are coming from you. It’s coming from a personal place.
There’s a drawing of the wave. So again, we have an idea and we’re going into this idea like the centrifugal force that’s in this wave. The patterns of it… It’s like how do I change that whole orientation and bring somebody to a whole new way of looking at a wave? For me, it’s fantastic going through that process. Someone coming to it, looks at the corner of the wave where it’s blue and red and it starts flickering and they’re like, “What’s happening?” That’s what happens in surfing. The wave is not standing still. It’s not flat. It’s buzzing.
It’s alive. It’s never still. It’s never actually a snapshot.
In introducing op art and figure-ground into a figurative, Bridget Riley would make it abstract and it would just be lines.
This is all making me think of the idea of forms. Every leaf is a lie because they’re all different. No two are the same, so you could never have an exact definition of a leaf. You can only have the perception of a leaf that’s in everyone’s head.
Yes. That’s the problem with reading. The reader has to understand the words and every person understands the words differently, so the writer has to combine the words in such a way to get it to have rhyme and reason and depth. I’m dyslexic, so there are various words I don’t even know and I’ll leave out prepositions. For me to read, I’m slowed down, because I’m looking up words, so I don’t use the written word that often. Education is formed around memory and drill until a person gets it into their unconscious and immediately perceives what the words mean. Higher education is where all those people went through the same books and the same lectures and they share a vocabulary. Because of that, they start throwing words out there that establish these very large concepts, and if you go to college, you understand it.
“Perception is a really important thing in the rules of life. If you don’t let yourself go, you don’t learn these things. You’re limiting your perception.”
One thing that I left your show thinking about was the clipping on the wall referencing the West Coast Statue of Liberty. I thought about it a lot and I told a lot of people about it. It’s really heavy, but it’s also undeniable. It’s really an interesting comparison.
Well, it’s a silhouette. It’s symbolic. If you take out the grays that make up the narrative and convert them into the contrast photograph, it changes its meaning. With The Endless Summer poster, the guy with the surfboard on his head is Bruce Brown, the filmmaker, but people don’t know that. They ask questions constantly. “Who is the guy with the board over his head? The movie is about two people. Who is the third guy? I didn’t see him in the movie.”
That’s interesting. People take things so literally.
Bruce became statuary, so it’s fantastic. Look at the French in creating the Statue of Liberty. They had various sizes and then they did this gigantic one and put it up there. It’s a French symbol.
So then you have a Hawaiian based symbol that came to California.
Yeah. From Bruce Brown’s point of view, it’s like being in Hawaii and learning how to surf after being in the Navy. That’s where they came from. They learned it from the Hawaiians because they were over there during the war. The Patterson brothers, there were three of them, and they were sitting in a bush in Hawaii, watching Pearl Harbor being bombed. It was these three kids. They wanted to get out of there, so they came to America and lived with various white families here, and they grew up here and went to school. Not only did they have their culture wiped out, essentially, but then the war disturbed them, and their parents sent them here to protect them. Then they had to deal with prejudice and then integrate with the white race. Through that, they became fascinating surfers.
They were bringing the hip.
The Beach Boy was hip in Hollywood and throughout the land. The Beach Boys were the guys that were hip. They walked on water.
Awesome. We talked about skating and Jimmy’Z in the ‘80s. I’m a backyard pool skater, just like the guys in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’ve been absolutely fascinated and obsessed for about 10 years now since I stopped surfing because I found backyard pools to skate. It’s this lost piece of California’s culture and architecture that will never be built the same way again. It’s like an endangered species, because they never fix up old swimming pools, and the old swimming pools are the good ones to ride.
That was because they were making them round. That was part of the shapes at that time, instead of being squared off.
Right. They don’t build them like that anymore. It’s so unbelievable. We search all over and knock on people’s doors and go through construction sites to skate these backyard pools. I was wondering if you ever got to see any of that.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye a couple of times, but I was older at that time. That was in the ‘80s, so I was in my forties by then.
So you have this conformity.
There’s this conformity world and here are these right-wing crazies trying to drive the establishment into this brick wall. Conformity can’t break out of itself. They can’t control the revolution that’s going on in government and in politics. And then who is hip?
It’s terrifying as a 24-year-old and being a fan of the culture of the past and looking towards my future and my friends and their jobs and the possibilities. I look at their interests and what they’re good at and what they’re conforming to doing, which is not their passion, just due to the circumstances.
Passion is like dress up, and then you go back to conformity. It only takes minutes to conform.