Interview with Den­nis Loren, one of the most influential visual artists in the history of Rock n' Roll culture

"When you understand that secret and leave yourself open, it can happen to you too. I go to that same 'head space' for both my art and my music."

Dennis Loren: The Art of Freedom

Den­nis Loren was born on June 15th, 1946 in Detroit, Michigan. He has been cre­at­ing con­cert posters, album cov­ers, CD pack­ages and music related graph­ics for over 42 years. He served as art direc­tor for the music mag­a­zines Blitz!, Gold­mine, R.P.M., Cream and Metal (1977 — 1992). Through­out his career, Den­nis has also cre­ated pack­ag­ing design for numer­ous record labels and record­ing artists rang­ing from Frank Zappa, Moby Grape and the Blues Project to Brian Wil­son, and Otis Redding .

Dennis Loren in 2010, photo by his son Benjamin Grant. "He used his middle name professionally, like I do. My full name is Dennis Loren Kranich, but I have only use my first and middle name since the mid-‘60s. My last name is often mispronounced and this made things easier for me. My father always found this amusing, because his first name is Loren."

Den­nis began cre­at­ing con­cert posters in 1967. His first three posters were done for Muddy Waters, The Young­bloods and Jimi Hen­drix.  Over the years, Den­nis has designed posters for The Matrix, The Fill­more, The Avalon Ball­room, The Great Amer­i­can Music Hall, The Warfield, and The Whisky A Go-Go among many other leg­endary venues.

Dennis talks about his Art, Psychedelic era, Chet Helms, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, John Sinclair, the Blues, Fillmore, Avalon, Charlie Musselwhite, Jerry Miller, B.B. King and many more.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in ART and what does "ART" means to you?

DENNIS LOREN: I began drawing when I was very young. It may help if I explain my family background and the environment that I grew up in. My mother Dorothy died in 1950 when I was 4 years old and my brother David was only 3 months old, My father Loren, David and I moved in with my paternal grandparents Amanda and Benjamin. My father’s brothers, Melvin and Clifford, had gotten married and moved out, so there was room for us. Dad’s younger teenage siblings Irving and Edith were still living a home. My grandmother Amanda recognized my drawing ability. She encouraged me and gave me plenty of art supplies to work with. She was a great supporter of the arts. My teenage uncle Irving was a singer and my grandmother paid to have him take singing lesions. My grandfather Ben was a schoolteacher and had a large library of classic books. Before World War II my father played the trombone in a Detroit big band. He was a wonderful photographer and loved music. My uncle Clifford was a great pencil sketch artist. When Clifford would visit, I use to spend hours watching him render cars, trucks, trains and airplanes. So, I grew up surrounded by art, literature and music. I loved the illustrations in my grandfather’s story books and my father’s record album covers. I also loved the comic strips in the newspapers and the photography in magazines. I studied them. I have always been drawn toward the graphic arts and music. Later in the ‘50s my father remarried. My stepmother Harriet was a schoolteacher and played the piano. Art to me is the act of communication and sharing, in all the various forms it takes.

What do you learn about yourself from you’re the ARTS (visual, music etc.) and what has offered you?

DENNIS LOREN: Art has taught me to be intuitive and listen to my creative impulses. I am fortunate to have made both art and music into a career. I have been able to combine my interest in both.

Dennis painting in 1954, when he was 8 years old. Photo by Loren Wesley Kranich

What characterize Dennis Loren’s work & progress, how do you describe your philosophy?

DENNIS LOREN: My aunt Nell use to call me an extremely empathetic person. I have been blessed with the ability to listen to both lyrics & music and turn that inspiration into interesting graphic designs for, both LP/CD packaging and concert posters, merchandise, advertising or music magazine layouts. I don’t feel that I have a single style or design philosophy. I take each project individually. I’m able to use most of the graphic design styles that I have studied, such as, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and San Francisco psychedelic. Lately I have been combining my pen & ink drawings with photomontage effects. The thing that remains constant in most of my work is the use of vibrant or stark color combinations. In the last few months I have also collaborated with my friend and artist Carolyn Ferris. Although our individual techniques are very different, we really work really well together and come up with designs that neither one of us would have come up with alone. We just bounce things back and forth, until we are both happy with the results. Rock bands such as, Moonalice, The Flamin’ Groovies, The Jerry Miller Band and Powder give me complete freedom when I do designs for them. You should read the emails that I receive when I send them proofs – ha!!!

The whole of my art & design philosophy is the FREEDOM to do ones best work. Most artists are very hard on themselves long before they submit a design for final approval from a client. The current trend of micro-managing “focus groups” or “design by committee” are two things that I really dislike about the corporate graphic design business today. I feel that this is why most contemporary CD packaging is so bland. All of the excitement of the music inside isn’t reflected by the outer packaging graphics. Many young designers seem to be afraid to use color in interesting ways, like the graphic artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. To my eye, things look very understated and boring. All of the creativity seems to be driven out of the designs by these focus groups and committees. When an artist is hired today, they should be allowed express themselves freely. The finished designs will be better if they are allowed that freedom. I have lived long enough to experience both sides of these approaches. My friend and fellow poster artist Lindsey Kuhn thinks that poster art has become the “new” album cover art for music fans today.

What are some of the most memorable posters and prints you've had?

DENNIS LOREN: The Muddy Waters Living End concert poster in 1967 is significant, because it was my first. It’s awfully primitive compared to the work I was doing just a few years later, but you learn as you go – ha!!! My posters for The White Stripes have become iconic. My favorites are for The White Stripes & The Strokes concert at Chene Park in Detroit and The White Stripes show at the Horus Club in Rome. I also love the seven-color silk-screen poster that I designed for the Yes & Asia concert at the Warfield in San Francisco in 2009. It may be ironic, but usually my favorite poster designs are the ones I’ve just designed or those that I am currently working on – ha!!!

(Poster for the Yes and Asia concert at the Warfield Music Theatre in San Francisco is homage to the art of Roger Dean, who did album covers for both of these bands.)

What is the relation between music and image? How important was the music in your life?

DENNIS LOREN: I think the connection between the music – that I am doing representational art for – is m very important. In the early 1960s was interested in the folk & country blues revival movement. One of my drawings from that era was done while I was at a John Lee Hooker gig at a coffeehouse in Detroit. It is a simple pencil portrait, but I think that I really captured him. My brother David and I played together in bands since our school days. David played lead guitar and I sang, played harmonica, dulcimer and the autoharp. At one point after the “British Invasion,” we were actually in two bands. The Heartbeats were a more R&B and blues based, while The Vampires were more of a folk rock group that we wrote our own songs. This group also covered a handful of hits by some of the English groups, such as The Zombies, The Kinks, The Animals, Them and The Pretty Things. Later, when I was drafted into military service and stationed in Sinop, Turkey, I played in a band with my fellow soldiers in band called Part Two. While I was still in the army, my brother David continued to play with The Heartbeats, who renamed themselves The Black & Blues Band and did some recordings at Terra Shirma Studios. The Vampires added two new members and renamed themselves Youngblood Hawke. After I returned to America, I moved to San Francisco in March of 1967. I joined a band as lead vocalist and harmonica player called The New Gothic Blues Unit. After two of the original members left, we changed the name of the group to Mercury Vapor.

When I returned to Detroit in 1970 and continued to play on weekends as a solo singer-songwriter at Detroit area coffeehouses and colleges. One of my songs, “Let Go” is on the “Stone Soup” album, which was a compilation featuring 11 Michigan singer-songwriters. Around that same time, AutoMotive Records (a Detroit “new wave” label) released a 45 of two early ‘70s recordings that I made with three members of The Heartbeats. When single was finally released in 1976, we used The Vampires name.

The Vampires were a folk-rock band (1965). Larry Jackson, Dave Halstead, Doug Lebeck, Dennis Loren, David Kranich. Photo by Kay Jackson.

The photo on the cover of the picture sleeve was of original Vampires members Dave Halstead, Doug Lebeck and myself. In this 1965 photograph by Kay Jackson, we looked like a bunch of Vampires – ha!!! On the A side, my song “Don’cha Touch Our Rock & Roll,” was a “tongue in cheek” slam against glam-rock. I did my best impression of Mick Jagger – ha!!! The flip side “On My Mindm” was written and sung by former Heartbeats guitarist Marc Falconberry. This single got great reviews in both New York Rocker and Billboard magazines and someone once told me that it had become a collector’s item in England.

By 1978, my graphic design work literally took over and I didn’t have time to perform much anymore. Now that I’m older, I have started writing songs again and I will record again soon. Many of my musician friends including Jerry Miller (Moby Grape), Prairie Prince (The Tubes & Jefferson Starship), Cyril Jordan (The Flamin’ Groovies), Keith Graves (later versions of both Quicksilver & Jefferson Starship), Freddie “Steady” Krc and Cam King (from The Explosives) and Layton DePenning (The Lavender Hill Mob), have already agreed to play on those sessions. I will have two all-star line-ups behind me when I record in Santa Cruz, California and in Austin, Texas, later this year – ha!!!

How does the music affect your mood and inspiration? What kind of music you hear when you are on progress?

DENNIS LOREN: Music is very important to my design work. While I’m working, I play CDs on my Walkman. I wear headphones, so that I don’t bother anyone else, but often I find myself singing along – ha!!! The music just helps the process and I discover so much that I can use while listening to a group’s music.

What are your hopes and fears for the Art? What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

DENNIS LOREN: The music business has changed so much due to internet downloading, which may doom packaging design eventually. Recently though I have been doing more sleeve designs for vinyl recordings. Many hip young people in America are buying vinyl records now. So, there may still be hope for old dinosaurs like me – ha!!! My musical tastes are still very eclectic. Over the last few weeks I’ve listened to CDs by Mumford & Sons (Babel), Bob Dylan (Tempest), Etta James (The Best Of), Tame Impala (Sun Mira Antares Ep), The Pralines (A Beautiful View), Chick Corea &  Bela Fleck (Enchantment), The Steve Miller Band (Children Of The Future), John Coltrane (A Man Called Trane), BB King & Eric Clapton (Riding With The King), Tim Buckley (Live At The Folklore Center, NYC – March 6, 1967), the first 5 Byrds albums, Terry Haggerty (First Take), Jorma Kaukonen (River Of Time), The Flamin’ Groovies (Shake Some Action) and Moonalice’s first album and 6 EP box set called Dave’s Way Vol. 1-6.

Chet Helm’s birthday party at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco 2003. San Francisco Oracle editor Allen Cohen, Family Dog poster printer Bruce Dauser, Family Dog promoter Chet Helms and Dennis Loren. Photo by Stefanie Herzer

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Chet Helms, John Sinclair, Jerry Miller and Haggerty?

DENNIS LOREN: When I moved to San Francisco in March of 1967, I brought a package from a musician friend in Detroit named Ted Lucas and delivered it to Jim Gurley (lead guitarist of Big Brother & The Holding Company). There were a number of people from Detroit, who had relocated to San Francisco, including Jim Gurley, Ellen Harmon & Jack Tollie (of the original Family Dog production company), poster artist Stanley Mouse and Larry Miller (who pioneered the “free-form” radio format at radio station KMPX). Jim Gurley invited me to the Avalon Ballroom to hear Janis and Big Brother and introduced me to Chet Helms. Although, I didn’t do any posters for the Avalon Ballroom or The Family Dog at that time, I eventually would. Chet was a wonderful person and I miss him a lot. One of the interesting things about Chet was that when he hired me to do a poster, he would always give me a theme. When I designed the Alan Cohen benefit poster (with artist Howard Krock), Chet said that he would call the concert “The Hepcats Ball.” If you look on most early Family Dog Avalon Ballroom posters you will see lettering that says things like “Tribal Stomp,” Sin Dance.” “The Laugh Cure,” “Euphoria,” “Zig-Zag” or “Earthquake.”

A few months after meeting Jim Gurley, I met Skip Spence from Moby Grape. He introduced me to Jerry Miller and the other members of the band. I recently designed a front cover design for a solo album by Peter Lewis. He is still working on the recordings for that project, so it won’t be released until later this year. In 2009, I designed a CD package for a new Moby Grape album (working title: “The Real Potato”), which remains unreleased, because of differences between the band members and the producer. Jerry recently told me, that the album will eventually come out. Over the years I have designed a number of posters for both Moby Grape and solo shows done by individual members, as well as Big Brother & The Holding Company.

The Sons Of Champlin were one of my favorite San Francisco bands in the late ‘60s. I met Terry Haggerty, when he played with my friend and drummer Prairie Prince when they played briefly together in band called Don’t Push The Clown.” Although Terry and Jerry Miller are currently recording a guitar duet album, Terry, his wife Katie, Prairie, Katherine Lewis and Keith Graves are working on recordings for a new group they have formed called Song Farm. An album of these recording will come out later this year. My friend Carolyn Ferris and I are currently working on the CD packaging design for the Song Farm project. We are also working on a cover design for Catherine Lewis & Keith Graves’ 2nd Sweet Jam album called “Familiar Faces.”

When I returned to Detroit in July 1970, my son Ben and I moved into a communal house with Rick Drutchess, who drove the equipment truck for The MC5. Wayne Kramer came by the house frequently. John Sinclair was still in prison then, but he would soon be released after, a huge benefit concert was held in Ann Arbor featuring John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and many others. A few years later I worked, with Grande Ballroom poster artist Gary Grimshaw, John Sinclair and his then wife and photographer Leni Sinclair on a weekly political & entertainment newspaper called the Detroit Sun. We have all been friends ever since then. I’ve designed posters for several of John Sinclair’s Blues Scholars concerts over the years.

John Sinclair & Dennis Loren in San Francisco in 2005. John is interviewing Dennis for his internet radio show that originates from Amsterdam, where John lives. Photo by Kent Wood

What first attracted you to the Blues and how has the blues culture changed your life?

DENNIS LOREN: In the early ‘60s, I religiously purchased the recordings of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and so many others. Because of his interest in jazz and big band music, my father gave me a healthy respect and interest in the great black musicians that played jazz, big band music and the blues. My father told me that blues and gospel music were the roots of all other great black music. Dad moved right along with times. He loved the music being produced at Motown. He always gave David and I the price of admission and permission to attend the “Motortown Review” concerts at the Fox Theatre in Detroit when we where teenagers. As a young man (before World War II), Dad use to attend shows at the Graystone Ballroom and saw Duke Ellington, Count Basie with Billy Holiday and so many other big bands. His personal favorites were the Jimmy Lunceford big band and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.

Growing up in an ethnic melting pot like Detroit gave me a healthy respect and interest in the music of other cultures. Also, in the early ‘60s Civil Rights movement and the folk & country (acoustic) blues revival was happening and many of my white friends became interested in the history of black music. One thing that I found interesting among my black friends, were that they weren’t all that interested the blues. They preferred cool jazz, doo-wop and soul music. I think that this was a just a black “generation gap” thing. They considered the blues to be their grandfathers or father’s music – ha!!! They were always mystified way so many young white people should care about it. The blues affected my life in many ways. 1st, I loved and later learned to play the harmonica by listening to the records of Little Walter, Sonnyboy Williamson and others. 2nd, many rock & roll bands in both the US an England included blues elements in their sound. I use hear some bands described in the music press as blues-rock groups. The blues seems to touch certain individuals every new generation that comes along. I think its wonderful to see younger black musicians such as Robert Cray, Keb’ Mo', Ben Harper and Gary Clark, Jr., play the blues.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

DENNIS LOREN: You can’t get much closer to the root of things without hearing the blues, Even if you are a fan of country & western music, you can hear the blues in the music Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams. Rock & roll is the child of both country and the blues. We all know the story that Sam Phillips told, “If I could find a white boy who could sing the blues, I will make a million dollars.” He found that “boy” with his discovery of Elvis Presley. The blues is elemental. The cross-cultural exchange of the guitar and the banjo – originally based on an African instrument played by the Griots (wandering storytelling musicians)  – is a good example of what happened when black & white Southern musician’s sat down played music together. Of course, we know this was done when the dominant racist culture wasn’t looking. Bluegrass music is another direct result of that cross-cultural exchange. The banjo his been showing up again in many recent recordings. The 2007 collaboration of jazz piano player Chick Corea and bluegrass artist Bela Fleck on their album called “The Enchantment,” is a good example. I suggest that readers listen to albums by The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Mumford & Sons. We don’t always recognize it, but the blues is everywhere – ha!!! 

(Muddy Waters Poster: "My first concert poster for Muddy Water’s June 1967 appearance at The Living End Coffeehouse in Detroit. I was already living in San Francisco, but my girlfriend Kay Jackson in Detroit, got me this commission. I drew the poster in pen & ink – with one hand-cut litho film overlay – in San Francisco and sent her the artwork via the US Postal Service.")

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) you would put in a "capsule on time"?

DENNIS LOREN: It is funny that you should mention that, I have been working on a book of my music related illustration & design work that I plan to call “Finger Prints.” And it will be my “time capsule.” I’m about 85% finished with writing and laying out the book, but I keep get interrupted with new projects – ha!!! Finger Prints will feature my early design work along with the best of my more recent concert poster designs. It will also include my LP & CD packaging, music magazine covers and layouts and concert photography. Just about everything that I can squeeze between to covers – ha!!! Last year I co-authored gathered the poster images for a book called “Classic Rock Posters,” with Mick Farren. He handled the English and European posters and I gathered the U.S. and Canadian (and some other countries) posters that appear in the book. I had constant problems with the editors concerning the selection and placement of the images, but most people seem to like the book anyway. There are posters and flyers in the CRP book that have never appeared in any poster books before. “Classic Rock Posters” was published in the US, the UK, France Italy and Germany. My concert posters can be seen in “The Art Of Modern Rock,” book by Paul Gruskin & Dennis King (Chronicle Books) and in the documentary called “American Artifact” by Merle Becker. This film is available on DVD from Freak Films. I designed the front cover of the DVD.

Which meetings and acquaintances of musicians and artists have been the biggest experiences for you?

DENNIS LOREN: Although I’ve very eclectic and open-minded when it comes to music, I am still quite partial to the music produced in both Detroit and San Francisco from all eras. I have many other favorites from all over the world and I have been fortunate to have met many of the musicians that I have done work for. The list is long, but includes, BB King, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Brian Wilson, Barry White, Roky Erickson, Buddy Miles, Vassar Clements, The New York Dolls, The Flamin’ Groovies and The White Stripes. I have worked on CD reissue packages for a number deceased, musicians, singers and bands, including Frank Zappa, Otis Redding and The Bobby Fuller Four, that I would have really have liked to have met. I did meet Frank Zappa’s wife and children soon after I worked on the “Cucamunga” packaging for a CD that included Frank’s earliest recordings.

It’s very difficult to pick “the biggest” or my most favorite experience, but it is most likely the working with Brian Wilson on the packaging and tour merchandise for his 2004 release of “Smile.” My friend and fellow designer Mark London is Brian Wilson’s in-house graphic designer. Mark considers me his me mentor and often calls me to work on designs for Brian from time to time. Mark and I first heard the finished “Smile” album in “surround sound” in Brian’s home music room. Last spring Mark hired me finish the logo for The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary tour. This logo was based on lettering that was originally done by Dean Torrance for a ‘70s Beach Boys album cover. Mark updated the design and then handed it to me to finish. I’ve seen it used on dozens of products, including on the cover of live concert DVD called “Doin’ It Again.” Meeting artist Roger Dean (who did the album covers Yes, Asia and many English progressive bands) was another personal thrill. I designed a poster the Yes & Asia concert at the Warfield Music Theatre in San Francisco. Everyone can read about that meeting on my website: www.dennisloren.com

(Johnny Guitar Watson poster: "I did two CD packages for Johnny “Guitar” Watson, while he was signed to Al Bell’s Bellmark label. I did two posters for his concerts at BB King’s Club in Universal City and at the West Hollywood House Of Blues venues. Soon after this he died on stage during a performance on his tour of Japan. A sad day.")

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Family Dog artists with your projects?

DENNIS LOREN: I’m very influenced by the “big five” – as they were known then – poster artists that included Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso. Along with Gary Grimshaw who designed posters for the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, The poster artists – who worked for Chet Helms and The Family Dog doing the Avalon Ballroom posters in San Francisco and Gary Grimshaw in Detroit – are my personal design heroes. I’ve learned so much from just looking at their magical, clever, vibrant and colorful poster art. They are all friends of mine now, but I was in awe of their work in the ‘60s. I’m still influenced by them today. They would all go on to created posters for Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, Fillmore West, Winterland and Warfield venues (including Gary Grimshaw).

Gary Grimshaw & Dennis Loren at the “Temporary Insanity” poster art show at The Off The Wall Gallery on Haight Street in 1995. Photo by Laura Grimshaw

Although the Fillmore Auditorium still prints concert posters, JC Hall and Ideal Posters, Chuck Sperry and Goldenvoice Productions and the band Moonalice are keeping the San Francisco poster tradition alive If fact Moonalice prints a poster for each of their concerts around the country and give them away free at the end of each show, just like Chet Helms and Bill Graham did. With the art direction of longtime Fillmore poster artist Chris Shaw and his wife Alexandra Fischer, Moonalice uses about 22 veterans and contemporary artists in rotation. These artists include Avalon & Fillmore poster artists David Singer, Lee Conklin, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Chris Shaw, Alexandra Fischer, Carolyn Ferris, Wendy Wright, Dennis Larkins, Chuck Sperry, Ron Donovan, Dave Hunter and myself, as well as the stunning work of John Seabury, Gary Houston, Winston Smith, John Mavroudis, Darrin Brenner, Lauren Yurkovich, Claude Shade and husband & wife team George & Patricia Sargent. Even Jefferson Airplane/Starship singer Grace Slick has done a couple of Moonalice posters. There are more than 590 posters in this collection as of today, but there will be a few more printed next week – ha!!! Readers can checkout these two websites: www.moonalice.com and www.moonaliceposters.com

Why did you think that psychedelic art continued to generate such a devoted following?

DENNIS LOREN: Because much like the blues, psychedelic poster art has staying power – ha!!! There are lots of other cool rock poster styles, but for some reason psychedelic poster design just won’t go away. Maybe that’s because there are so many of the original artists still practicing their trade. In another way, psychedelic poster art isn’t just one style at all, but a mixed bag of influences that keep interesting too. Also, there are organizations who’s sole purpose is to keep interest in rock posters alive. In the San Francisco Bay area we are lucky to have The Rock Poster Society (www.trps.org) TRPS hosts two show in San Francisco in the Summer and the Fall. Although Frank Kozik formed The American Poster Institute (www.api.org) in San Francisco, but now AIP hosts shows in Austin, Texas (during the SxSW music convention) and in Seattle (during the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival). API has also done poster shows in Chicago and Hamburg, Germany.

What are you miss most nowadays from 60s psychedelic era and Acid culture of art?

DENNIS LOREN: I must confess that it was a combination of the posters, the light shows and the eclectic mix of music that was happening in San Francisco in the ‘60s that attracted me to scene, but never the drugs. All three of those elements were needed for a great dance/concert, were influenced by LSD. I was first “dosed” with acid by some art students in New York City in 1966 (who were friends of my girlfriend Kay Jackson) and later I had other experiences when I got to San Francisco, but didn’t make it a habit like many did. I guess that you could call me a “designated driver” during the ‘60s. I was there for many friends that had bummers. A person could get a “contact high” from just being in the Avalon or Fillmore – from all the pot smoke – ha!!! My enjoyment of these events was never based on taking acid or other psychedelic drugs. I really think my first psychedelic experience was when I had the red measles as a child. I had to stay in a darkened room for several days, because those measles and bright lights could cause blindness. During that time I also had a high fever and I hallucinated for days. I believe the fever opened my pineal gland and all this stuff came rushing in. I was floating in the sky in a bed of clouds. I even had olafactory hallucinations, because I constantly smelled ozone. I jokingly tell people now that “I was born psychedelic,” because of this experience.

Believe me, this kind of activity still goes on in the SF Bay area. Just two weeks ago Carolyn Ferris and I attended the Psychedelic Science Conference at the Marriot Convention Center and Hotel in downtown Oakland. I was there to look at the wonderful psychedelic art on display in the “marketplace” room, but clearly other people were there for the seminars and others for something more. Lots of attendees looked like they may have been tripping during the five days of this gathering. You should know too that Carolyn Ferris used to work with Timothy Leary and designed many of his book jackets, before she ever designed a “Bill Graham Presents” Warfield or Fillmore poster.

I’m almost 67 years of age (on June 15th of this year) and I’m still open to looking at wonderful art and listening to new music of all styles and persuasions. Bob Dylan once said in one of his songs that, “He not busy being born, is busy dying.” I have never taken that line as negative thought, but as a suggestion that we need to constantly grow or learn new things or else we will stagnate, wither and disappear. It is real easy to get stuck on a treadmill of repeating lifestyle patterns. I think that everyone should take on their lives with gusto, because we are hear for only a short time in the total scheme of the universe. No mater if you believe in God or Science, we are such temporary fragile beings, so make the most of it – ha!!!

(Big Brother & The Holding Co. postar: "In 2002, Morning Spring Rain Productions reopened the legendary Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco and hired me to design this poster for the opening concert featuring Big Brother & The Holding Company, Melvin Seal’s Rhythm Factory, Will Bernard and Fox Glov.")

Are there any memories from the famous rock clubs like Fillmore, Matrix, Avalon etc. which you’d like to share with us?

DENNIS LOREN: I saw so much music in those days (and I continue to do so) that it almost could be compared to a religion to me. On Thursday evening I would go to the Matrix, on Friday the Avalon Ballroom, Saturday the Fillmore or Winterland and on Sunday there was always a free concert in Golden Gate Park or in other parks around San Francisco. I was in paradise. I never paid more than $3 dollars for a regular concert and the music in the parks was always free. I remember once driving across town one Sunday afternoon and I heard music as I was passing a neighborhood park. I pulled over and discovered that it was Mad River who was playing. The next group that played was Tracy Nelson & Mother Earth. When I retuned to Detroit in 1970, I use to tell friends that I saw The Doors, Pink Floyd and Procol Harem at the same concert at Winterland. My memory had compressed two consecutive Saturdays. The posters later set me straight and told me one concert featured HP Lovecraft, The Doors and Procol Harem. The following Saturday, featured Mount Rushmore, Procol Harem, Pink Floyd. Procol Harem being the band that linked these two Saturdays in my mind – ha!!!

(Jimi Hendrix poster: "This was the third poster that I designed in the summer of 1967. This was free concert was held in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park by The Diggers. While I was posting my Youngbloods at the Matrix poster, I met some of The Diggers’ who asked me to do this poster. The Diggers were a charitable group of hippies that provided free food in Panhandle everyday for the hordes of young people who had come to San Francisco from across America for the “Summer Of Love.”)

Which memory from Mercury Vapor and jamming with BB King and Charlie Musselwhite makes you smile?

DENNIS LOREN: Almost to many to remember (ha!!!), but two stand-out for me, Mercury Vapor lead guitarist Joe Toschi and I also had an acoustic duo called Patchwork, We often played in the old North Beach neighborhood which had been home to the Beatniks in the 1950s and early 1960s. We played in two coffeehouses on Grant Avenue in particular. One was called Coffee & Confusion and the other was called the Coffee Gallery. One night while we performed our 1st set at the Coffee Gallery we noticed from the stage that Grace Slick was in the audience. Suddenly, Joe and I both got nervous to have a rock star at our gig. Somehow we kept it together, because she didn’t leave. Grace even stayed for our 2nd set. It made us feel good to know that she liked our music – ha!!!

Of course, the real high point for me was playing harmonica with BB King at the Fillmore West (which shouldn’t be confused with the old Fillmore Auditorium) The Fillmore West had been known as the Carousel Ballroom, but when Bill Graham took over the venue he called it the Fillmore West. Mercury Vapor use to practice in a rehearsal studio called Funtier Town. It was located across the street from the Playland amusement park out by the Pacific Ocean beach. Funtier Town looked like an old Western cowboy town, but by this time it was run by our friend John Rosenstock, who used to be a road manager for Santana and later It’s A Beautiful Day. He also had played lead guitar in a band called Steel Wool. Anyway, Funtier Town Studios rented practice space in all of the old buildings. They had a bulliten board there with all kinds messages posted there. Sort of a musician’s social media networking site long before the internet – ha!!! Our other guitarist David Green noticed a flyer that said that BB King wanted to jam with younger local musicians. David idolized BB. So, I said, “Let go to that concert. Here is your chance to play with BB.” The night of the show (Sunday, February 7th), David was extremely nervous as he carried his guitar into the Fillmore West. He seemed to get even more nervous as the evening wore on. Eventually, BB came on stage and played his regular set. At the end of that set he announced to the audience what was about to take place. He asked those that wanted to jam to come to an area on the left (his right) hand side of the stage.

"In 1985, I interviewed BB King backstage after his concert at the Masonic Auditorium in Detroit. During the interview we talked about my jamming with him in 1970. He said. “Dennis you have made something of yourself, while I’m still out here on the road.” Then we both laughed until my side ached, to end the interview!!!" Photo by Frank Pettis

By this time, David was shaking like a leaf in the wind. I just knew that he wasn’t going to be able to do it. Maybe I was just a little mad at David (because he bragged about it all week), so I reached into my jacket pocket where I kept three harmonicas and headed for the stage, just to show him that him that there was nothing to fear. I stood behind Charlie Musslewhite. Soon BB pointed to Charlie to let him know that is was his turn to play. When they finished that song, BB pointed to me and as Charlie passed me, he said, “break a leg kid.” Although I was a bit nervous too, that gave me all the confidence I would need. BB’s band began playing a slow blues shuffle as I approached the microphone. Thankfully one of my harmonicas was in the right key. A first I couldn’t hear myself in the monitor, so just kept vamping. Finally I caught the sound of my harp in monitor. BB signaled me with a smile and a nod of his head that I should take a solo, as the twelve bars rolled around BB took off from my last note and played a scorching solo. When the song was over I shook his hand and he smiled at me. As I walked back through the audience to were Joe, David, our drummer Jim Green and my lady fiend Abby were setting, people kept patting me on the back. That felt good. David just couldn’t believe what I had just done. He was still shaking, but said that he was proud of me. In 1975 I designed a poster for a BB King’s concert at the Masonic Auditorium in Detroit and in 1985 in interviewed him for a music magazine where I was working at the time.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the art and the music?

DENNIS LOREN: Actually, my high school print shop class taught me almost everything that I would need to know for my career in graphic design. Our class set the type, made page layouts and printed our school newspaper. Our teacher Mr. Stolflo taught us how to cut overlays for spot color, make film negatives for platemaking and other essential printing skills. Twice a week – after school while I was still attending O.L. Smith Junior High School – my art teacher Mr. Hashoian taught me the finer skills of illustration and cartooning. After I graduated from Edsel Ford High School, I worked fulltime in a department store and went to art school three hours in the evening. At that time, the school was called the Society Of Arts & Crafts, but it now know as the Center For Creative Studies. Stanley Mouse went to this school briefly. MCA/Universal art director Vartan, graduated form this school, as did, well known illustrator Glenn Barr and Cleveland rock poster artist Derek Hess. I was drafted into the US Army, after attending only one year, because I was only a part time student and couldn’t get a full time student deferment. All of my other skills I learned “on the job.” I guess you could say that both Mr. Hashoian and Mr. Stolflo taught me most of the secrets of the trade of graphic design. The rest I developed by “trail & error” – ha!!!

As for music, it was my father, playing in bands with my brother David, my junior high school music teacher Mr. English and every musician that I have ever liked or listened to. Each has taught me something. Writing songs is another mysterious thing I’ve done that is hard to explain clearly. In an interview, Bob Dylan once said, “The songs were here before me. I was just the pencil that wrote them down.” When you understand that secret and leave yourself open, it can happen to you too. I go to that same “head space” for both my art and my music.

"My brother David and I when we were children. In this picture – taken by our father Loren Wesley Kranich in 1951 – David is only about a year old and I am 5 years old."

What are the reasons to become 60s musicians, writers, activists and artists a legendary generation that left it mark through the years until now?

DENNIS LOREN: I think it was a special time, where talented people felt free enough to express themselves creatively. I think it still goes on, but the ‘60s were very open and we learned so much from each other. Nothing happens in a vacuum, you need the hothouse effect to reach that special place with your art or music, where you can excel and let the creativity flow. Bands like Moonalice, The Jerry Miller Band, The Flamin’ Groovies and Powder, labels like SteadyBoy Records and venues like the Art House Gallery & Cultural Center in Berkeley, create that kind hot house effect for me now. Also, I receive commissions from all over the world, because of the internet. So, that too has become yet another avenue where new clients contact me and give me new commissions for artwork.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

DENNIS LOREN: I have made very few paintings in my life, but the illustrations that I do for Moonalice occasionally DO tell stories. My latest poster for Moonalice (for their concert in Long Beach, California on the 26th of April), tells a special story about my brother David when were children. He used to go out to play in the backyard of our grandparent’s house. David would always take his stuffed toy tiger with him and set it nearby, while he blew bubbles or did other things. My grandmother Amanda always put a handful of nuts in one of the pockets of his short pants. A rather tame & friendly squirrel would often come out of a nearby tree and walk over to my brother. When David saw the squirrel, he would put the nuts in the open palm of his hand and the squirrel would eat the nuts then & there or take them and hide them in his nest in the tree, one at a time. They had a very special relationship. Moonalice band leader Roger McNamee sent me the following email, “Dennis, I love it, love it, love it. This poster design has just enough of a (Winnie the) Pooh vibe to make my day!” David passed away in 2003, just five months after my father did. I miss them both very much, but I have been able to put something about David in two of my Moonalice posters. Many of my Moonalice posters tell a story in the illustration, but most of them need a viewer to finish that story. I just draw the basic elements and leave the rest to the viewer’s imagination – ha!!!

Roger McNamee and Dennis Loren after Moonalice’s performance at Slim’s in San Francisco 2013. The band uses 18 regular poster artists in rotation, including Chris Shaw, Alexandra Fischer, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Lee Conklin, Carolyn Ferris, Dennis Loren and others.

I did paint pictures in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but most of them where stolen by a shady art dealer who opened a gallery in Detroit. Several fine art friends of mine invited me to be part of their group show at this new gallery. About a week after the opening, I dropped by the gallery to see if they had sold any of my paintings. The gallery was completely empty. This dealer had taken everyone’s paintings and no doubt sold them out of State, where he didn’t have to share the profits with the artists. I think that most artists have to find a gimmick to break into the fine art gallery scene anyway. I would rather make interesting art that is available to regular people and not just the rich. Plus I like making images that can be reproduced. To me making just ONE of anything, just seems so pointless when you share your art with the whole world. I have made friends with people all over the world, who appreciate my art. What are the chances of that happening if I was just a fine artist working in the gallery scene. Art critics and academic’s who perpetuate this idea be damned. Rick Griffin’s poster and album cover artwork will out live the work of 90% of artists in fine art scene.

Thanks for this interesting conversation. Any final comments?

DENNIS LOREN: If another artist were to make the painting framed in your question, I would like it to be a portrait of me standing in front of the empty gallery with a large question mark over my head – ha!!! This has been an extremely interesting interview Michael and I really appreciate you asking these questions. I hope that I have answered them clearly and told you some interesting stories that your readers will enjoy reading. Please forgive me if I have rambled on to long, but I spend so much time alone doing my art, that when someone asks me a question, be prepared to hear the answer from a long-winded soul like myself – ha!!!

Dennis Loren - Official website

Dennis Loren and Roky Erickson at Threadgill’s in 2006. Roky Erickson hosts his “Psychedelic Ice Cream Social”. Photo by Kent Wood

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