Gary Grimshaw (1946–2014)

Gary Grimshaw.

IN AN ESSAY titled “Notes for the New Geology,” sci-fi novelist turned hippy philosopher Chester Anderson once wrote, “Rock is a tribal phenomenon, immune to definition and other typographical operations, and constitutes what might be called a twentieth-century magic.” But while rock indeed may have been an anti-typographical art form (in the McLuhanite sense), it certainly invented some memorable typographies all to itself. Some of rock’s most effervescent iconography was created by Gary Grimshaw, a native of Detroit whose poster art and political activism helped to define the indelible connections of both the Motor City and the Bay Area to 1960s and ’70s counterculture.

As a teenager in Detroit, Grimshaw’s closest friend was Rob Derminer, the free music freak who eventually changed his name to Rob Tyner, taking the surname of John Coltrane’s piano player McCoy in tribute, and transformed into the singer in MC5, a band whose revolutionary energy lay at the heart of the Motor City’s greatest musical output of that era. This was the world Grimshaw inhabited: a youth culture inflamed by the giant steps then being taken in out-there free jazz, offering a fiery, politically committed alternative to the more mellow, laidback psychedelia coming from the West Coast.

Before that took off, Grimshaw joined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam-bound Army. In the mid-’60s he found himself docked in San Francisco, where he was exposed to the emerging West Coast rock music at venues like the Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom, whose poster art and liquid light shows were becoming part of the iconography of psychedelia. Returning to Detroit in 1966, he was invited to design posters and operate light shows for the newly opened Grande Ballroom. In that same year, he had a historic meeting with ex-convict John Sinclair, who would go on to manage MC5, and who founded the White Panther Party in 1968. Grimshaw was installed as the party’s Minister of Art.

Semi-formalizing the lysergically distorted lettering that artists like Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso were developing in San Francisco, Grimshaw’s concert posters—for acts like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, MC5 and others—were often framed in elaborate, symmetrical cartouches composed of decorative Art Nouveau elements, lotus flowers, and hash leaves. Often utilizing surreal collage and subverting nationalistic imagery such as the stars and stripes or the American eagle, Grimshaw harnessed the sprawling energies of alternative culture while also lending them a gravitas through the solidity of his designs, which were based in classical proportion, and his genius for typesetting. Undulating as if viewed through viscous liquid, his hand-drawn fonts were often so mannered as to be illegible, but the message could be decoded after the viewer had been drawn in by the initial spectacular impact of the overall image—a process not unlike the experience of listening to the most immersive psychedelic music.

Between the late ’60s and the early ’70s, he shuttled between Michigan and California, and when Sinclair was imprisoned on a drug charge in 1969, Grimshaw became one of the main agitators for his release. He held down a variety of jobs from the early ’70s onwards: creating a series of celebrated large-scale posters for the University of Michigan Activities Center, acting as art director for the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, and working as associate art director of the influential Creem magazine until 1984. In later years he continued to design album sleeves, posters, and books, and the 2012 book of photographs he coedited with Leni Sinclair, Detroit Rocks!, is a key historical document of the city’s rock culture. And until his death at the age of sixty seven, he was still being sought out by artists such as The White Stripes, Beck, and The Raveonettes, a new generation who appreciated his incredible draftsmanship—including his ability to faithfully paint reflective chrome—and so was continuing to play a significant part in the rock underground’s magical exertions on the twentieth (and twenty-first) century.

Rob Young is a writer, editor, and music critic who currently lives in Oslo.