Stanley Mouse and the sixties psych-rock aesthetic.
If I were to pick half a dozen of the definitive 1960’s people, Stanley Mouse would be one of them. —Bill Graham
Read any book about the sixties scene in San Francisco and you’ll run into Stanley “Mouse” Miller. Born in Fresno and raised in Detroit, Mouse moved to San Francisco in 1965, where he was commissioned by the concert organizer Bill Graham to illustrate the rock posters for which he would become best known. Mouse spent the years around the Summer of Love hocking T-shirts, designing posters for hundred-dollar commissions, running a successful hot-rod memorabilia company, and eventually designing album covers for the likes of the Grateful Dead, Journey, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix.
A new book, California Dreams, pays tribute to Mouse’s imagination and colorful, explosive aesthetic. He honed his style on the hot-rod scene in Detroit, where he pinstriped cars, sold T-shirts featuring drag-racing characters, and custom painted dashboards for six-packs of beer, all while still in high school. His early art portrays the speed and metal of American automobiles, but it’s also heavily influenced by the deformed monsters who took center stage in the golden age of TV sci-fi circa the 1950s, a cathartic genre for post–A-bomb Americans and their cold war anxieties.
Mouse perfected the acid aesthetic before it existed. He was still airbrushing his playfully grotesque, anti–Mickey Mouse hot-rod monsters when the first acid tabs were rolling out of chemistry labs. In San Francisco, he became one of the “big five” designers of psychedelic-rock poster art, finding and manipulating images from the public domain that gave the genre its trademark look. The Grateful Dead’s famous Skull and Roses design, for instance, originated from an illustration culled from a library’s old copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Heavily influenced by French Art Nouveau, Mouse’s cut-up style helped set the course for our current public-domain plundering. As Blair Jackson notes in the new collection, it’s easy to undersell the sixties rock-poster movement, but “there had never been anything like it; the closest antecedent was probably the posters that sprouted up around Paris in the late nineteenth century.”
Mouse’s eclectic work spans many mediums and decades of pop influence. Likewise, his style straddles the worlds of oozing flesh wounds and burnished chrome. California Dreams is the first career-spanning compendium of Mouse’s work; it includes his recent landscapes and figurative paintings. Taken as a whole, the work is a weird, gilded, space-age, flame-licked way to chart the rise of late-twentieth-century youth culture.
“I liked the posters better than the music,” Robert Crumb says in a terse preface. “Amped-up psychedelic electric guitar noodling never did anything for me.”
Jeffery Gleaves is digital manager of The Paris Review.