The Second Watershed Dishonorably Denied

Dylan poster

People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed 
 — from Bob Dylan’s Things Have Changed

The year 1966 brought an unwelcome hiatus from Bob Dylan’s ceaseless productivity; he was in a terrible motorcycle accident, and took some time off to recover. To fill the void, Columbia Records released a greatest hits album.

John Berg, Columbia’s art director, asked Milton Glaser to create a poster of Dylan that would be included in the album. The graphic designer had created only a few other posters at that point, but he took up the challenge, and shook up the entire counterculture.

He had studied art at New York’s Cooper Union and in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship. He was familiar with a broad range of European and American approaches to graphic representation, and he found inspiration for the Dylan poster from a self-portrait created by Marcel Duchamp, the French surrealist painter. Duchamp had his heyday in the early twentieth century, but was being rediscovered by the American pop artists of the 1960s; they were greatly inspired by the Dada movement Duchamp led. Duchamp’s 1957 self-portrait showed his silhouetted head in a white square set into a black border. Glaser came up with a similar composition, but reversed it, representing Dylan’s head facing left in black against a white background.

To that design Glaser added his own 1960s twist: he turned Dylan’s wild and unkempt hair into vividly colored, swirling ribbons. This suggested the psychedelic imagery coming out of the counterculture of the West Coast — the evocations of the East Coast LSD hallucinogenic experience (first popularized by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert), the Day-Glo decorative paintings of author and activist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, San Francisco’s Fillmore theater posters and the light shows that were the hallmark of Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane concerts.

There’s much more to delineate respecting more historical and more artistic influences, but suffice it to say for the moment that some six million copies of the poster were hung everywhere — EVERYWHERE — listeners appreciated Dylan’s music, which at the time was EVERYWHERE.

You could say that the combination of Bob Dylan’s sons and the poster captured the attention and the imagination of a generation. The so-called radical generation headed by hordes of hippies and all kinds of revolutionaries along the spectrum.

People relate easily to the thrust of that period and how it differs with what we see today among, say, millenials. But the reason I’m writing this piece is to point out how people like Glaser and Dylan could have created a second watershed in history.

Glaser went on to do hundreds of other posters and other memorable graphics, including the incredibly successful and famous I HEART NY. [I ask the reader to imagine a red heart in place of my word “HEART” to conjure up what everyone — EVERYONE — has seen on t-shirts, mugs,, etc.] That logo and promotional tagline for New York State came at a time in the 1970s when the East Coast region, and especially New York City, was experiencing a financial crisis, high crime, and other ills… and was buoyed up with the “love” embedded in the spirited artwork.

Yeah, Glaser became so well-known by the powers that be that when President Obama awarded Dylan the National Medal of Arts in 2009, he acknowledged Milton Glaser simultaneously at the White House. Both Dylan and Glaser gladly showed up for their well-deserved recognition.

But the sad fact is that they missed the revolutionary boat, opted out of making the radical gesture that might have injected an inspiring spirit into a new generation by attending the festivities hosted by the first Black president… who was just sneaking out of the ugly spotlight which saw him bailing out Wall Street… to say nothing about the bad press he was receiving over deeply disappointing anti-war activists, labor, African-Americans and many other demographics. [Pause.] They really ate up those 2009 honors.

What could they have done, Dylan and Glaser?

Not shown up. Or, better, foul-mouthed the war criminal, calling a spade a spade.

Thing is, they could still. And so could you… when you have something to lose.

Rachel Olivia O’Connor is a member of the Oxman Collective. She can be reached at [email protected].


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