Interview with Stanley Mouse- Seconds #45 (1997)

Seconds #45, 1997
by Steven Cerio

You’d have to list Stanley Mouse among the most memorable aestheticians to come down the pike since Normal Rockwell. But I’d hesitate to label Mouse a master of Psychedelic Art. To dub Stanley a master is to say he worked within the confines of a set form and fully acknowledged and exercised the laws of past technicians of said form. But Mouse helped create the form from rubble. He cast the frozen standard. Mouse is a maker! He laid down the track that any book-worming retro punk of psychedelic masterdom must follow.  Stanley Mouse didn’t rise from the art books. He came from up inside the music.

A child of Fifties Detroit, little Stanley spent lifetimes huddling under the sheets sneaking listens to the devil’s very own R&B, absorbing the tunes and developing a good prepubescent crush on the culture. He channeled those energies into art, mastering the airbrush at a very early age. With his parents and family behind him he went on to set up a mail order t-shirt business. He panhandled his wares at Midwestern Hot Rod shows and drag strips where he rubbed elbows with chubby characters like Big Daddy Roth, all while attending art school.

Mouse uprooted to the West Coast where he came face to face with the Coppertone-stained surf culture and its resident visionary Rick Griffin, with whom Stanley built a friendship that lasted until Rick’s untimely death in 1992.

In 1965, the San Francisco psychedelic scene really came together and happened. At that time the Haight-Ashbury was a sleepy neighborhood populated by only a small percentage of long hairs. Mouse haunted the print shops, snatching up posters wet off the press.

The Stanley Mouse-Alton Kelley connection was made in ’65 as well. The pair went on to create album covers, posters and other ephemera for The Grateful Dead, Starship, Rolling Stones, Wings, Journey and Steve Miller, to mention a few. They crated dozens of classic psychedelic posters for shows held at the now legendary Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms. Mouse coagulated his talents amidst Joplin, Eric Clapton and Robert Crumb. Stanley sent home posters and shirts to his family back in Detroit and they opened The Mouse House, a classic head shop to this day. Mouse became known as the “Grateful Dead artist” through his tight affiliation with the band, completing a fortune in graphics throughout their history. Mouse remains a Deadhead fave to this day. But his crown grew heavy and restricting at times. He hid from the Dead in Santa Fe, his crown secreted under a very big hat. In Santa Fe he went on to further investigate painting, something with which he is experimenting with to this day.

In 1993, Mouse’s 52nd year, his liver pooped out. Close to a half million dollars was needed for the surgery and organ replacement. The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Dinosaurs and New Riders of the Purple Sage amongst the many others pledged benefit shows and money. Stanley got a fresh liver – one that’s not regularly dipped in turpentine and toxic oil painting pigment like his ’52 model.

He continues to scribble and plat away with the same intensity he harnessed in the Sixties, each piece the expression of solidity with an obvious tinge of Zen as the basis of the sauce. But where there were many nervous notes in his earlier work, his new work abounds with confident open spaces packed full of reverberation and visions of a center. A wet freedom slides loose and glues the ideas in place.

Stanley Mouse resides in Somona, California with his wife and daughters. He amuses himself with sketching from models and writing ugly little death marches on his toy synthesizer. His book Freehand: The Art of Stanley Mouse is available from Snow Lion Graphics – PO Box 9465, Berkley, CA 94709.

SECONDS: So Stanley, I have some questions laid out –

MOUSE: All the regular questions? “How did you meet the Grateful Dead?” It’s a burning question.

SECONDS: No, I am not going to ask that. Let’s start with this: When did you realize you wanted to dedicate your life to art?

MOUSE: That’s a toughie. There’s so many moments that made me aim this way. Like the day I bought an airbrush and painted something weird on a t-shirt in my backyard and the neighborhood kids saw me doing it and in two seconds they had all their t-shirts out for me to paint. At that point, there was no other thing I could do. I was forced into it. (laughs)

SECONDS: What does an artist need – clarity or delusion?

MOUSE: A balance of both.

SECONDS: Your stuff seems to go both ways. Your airbrush work is very technical and labor intensive and other work looks like you’re just having fun.

MOUSE: I just finished a painting that looks like a Degas painting. I was thinking, “What do I do now? Do I draw hot rod monsters over it or Grateful Dead album covers?” I guess it’s a fantasy connected with the real skill.

SECONDS: What do you see as the difference between older Rock posters and what’s being produced now?

MOUSE: Before it was an explosion; now it’s a traffic jam.

SECONDS: It seems like the monster dragsters are coming back in vogue now.

MOUSE: I like painting hot rod monsters but I think hot rods look dumb now. Hot rods in the old days used to be bad. Now they’re just nostalgic looking. In the old days, when you drove down the street in a hot rod it was really a statement. There’s no sense of humor in cars now.

SECONDS: Rumor has it that Ed Roth stole the Rat Fink from the work you were doing –

MOUSE: Well, he stole my mouse image and took my character Freddy Flypogger and turned him into a rodent. You take the tail, ears and nose off and you have Freddy Flypogger. I was painting on the East Coast car show circuit and Roth came from the West Coast to a show in Pittsburgh. He was showing his car off and said, “Hey kid, can I paint at the show with you? You’ll learn how to make three hundred dollars instead of a hundred.” I said, “Let’s do it.” He set up next to me and he had a pair of Levis, a giant stomach and no shirt on and he sat on his little stool that was about a foot high and started painting. He was painting snakes and skulls, groovy stuff, but he was real slow and he only painted in black and white. I went fast and colored everything in and wound up making a thousand dollars. He made three hundred. He took a bunch of my catalogs back to L.A. and had his artists copy all my stuff and they created Rat Fink out of my characters.

I called my shirts Monster shirts and he called his Weirdo shirts. Then he started calling his stuff Monster shirts and even stole the pointed hat idea from me and called them Rat Fink hats.

SECONDS: You were close friends with Rick Griffin, too.

MOUSE: I stopped doing t-shirts and moved to California. I was painting shirts while my girlfriend was piercing eyes. We were all chewing peyote buttons. These three little surfer kids came and said, “Paint Murph on a shirt?” I said, “Who?” They ripped me apart and laughed at me. They went and got Surfer magazine and in it was the cartoon strip “Murph the Surf.” So I painted them a shirt with Murph the Surf on it.

About a year later I moved to San Francisco and the lady living next to me was Rick Griffin’s wife. She saw some of the posters I was doing and sent one to Rick in Southern California. Rick made a beeline up to San Francisco and joined in on the posters.

SECONDS: What is the project you’re doing with Peter Max?

MOUSE: I saw him at a show and we talked about doing Summer Of Love posters, where I’d do the West Coast and he’d do the East Coast Summer Of Love.

SECONDS: He’d probably get a sponser behind it…

MOUSE: Right; we could have Honda –

SECONDS: You could design a monster hot rod and they could build it for you.

MOUSE: That would be nice. I am working on my West Coast poster right now and it’s really neat.

SECONDS: What kind of imagery are you using?

MOUSE: The victory statue of Samothrace, the Greek statue with heads or arms that has wings. I had a model pose in that same pose and I put arms on her. One arm is carrying a guitar and the other is carrying a palette.

SECONDS: Robert Crumb was from the same period as you as well. What do you think about his success?

MOUSE: I don’t know, what is his success?

SECONDS: With the film, it seems like a household name now –

MOUSE: But I don’t see any new work coming from him.

SECONDS: That’s the strange thing.

MOUSE: He must have something brewing.

SECONDS: Do you think he’s put energy into being a good businessman like Peter Max has?

MOUSE: I don’t think Crumb is like Peter Max. (laughs) I have a picture of Crumb on my drawing board. I visited him in the South of France on the first day he had the key to his new house. I was there and took a picture of him pulling the insides of his pockets out like he didn’t have any more money. It’s a beautiful town, built by the Romans out of stone.

SECONDS: Back in the Sixties, lettering again became a real art form. Why did that happen?

MOUSE: Lettering was sterile in the Fifties. You weren’t supposed to break the laws of lettering. Doing hot rod t-shirts, I did all kinds of experimenting with lettering. That was my training. Everybody would put something different in front of my face and say, “Draw this on a shirt” so I got to draw in many styles.

SECONDS: That’s your art school right there.

MOUSE: I went to art school during the week and painting t-shirts on the weekends.

SECONDS: What is it about the printed graphic that appeals to you? Francis Bacon said he’d rather see his work printed than see his own originals

MOUSE: That’s because they were so hideous. (laughs) It seems like the era we live in is mass marketing and nobody’s going to buy a painting. I do a lot of paintings. Nobody buys them, but they’ll buy prints of them because they’re cheap.

SECONDS: Do you like the idea of your work being printed in a magazine or on an album cover so more people can see it?

MOUSE: Yeah, I probably have more printed things out there than any living artist. All the album covers, posters, t-shirts…

SECONDS: Any poignant thoughts about the Sixties?

MOUSE: When I was growing up, my parents always used to talk about the roaring Twenties. When people talk about the Sixties, I’d rather think about the future. I despise the Sixties for that reason.

SECONDS: Because there’s so much nostalgia built around it?

MOUSE: Yeah. The reality of the Sixties was pretty grungy. There was a few great things that happened and it was nice – we were in our twenties and there were all these beautiful people around but Haight Street was weird and what was going on was strange. I always get sucked into talking about it. First I’ll say, “ I hate it” and then all of a sudden I’ll go on about the Sixties. I say, “I’m doing it again.”

SECONDS: Well, it’s your childhood, right?

MOUSE: It started with the Psychedelics and was a search. It got twisted along the way into some kind…

SECONDS: Lifestyle?

MOUSE: A sick, druggy lifestyle and that’s not what it started out as at all. When the masses got a hold of it, it turned into something other than the initial spark.

SECOND: Did it lose the sense of ritual?

MOUSE: Yeah. I remember around ’63, we’d gather people together – and they had to be the right people – and we’d get in a room and smoke Pot. We used to call it a set. Like, “Let’s have a set.” It was Communion, you know? Everybody would know what everybody else was thinking. If some stranger walked in who wasn’t in tune, it would jar everything apart. We lost that along the way. I grew up in the Fifties in Detroit. I was all Motown and ’56 Chevys. It was a great way to be a teenager but there wasn’t any Psychedelics. It was real uptight. You had to go to church on Sunday’s and if you didn’t you were bad. When the Psychedelic thing hit, it blew everything apart. It’s taken this long for the whole country to become Hippies, but now everybody’s a Hippie. They might deny it but they’re living with the lifestyle. I hate the word “Hippie.” (laughs) All the movies, all the TV – everything is done with that consciousness that first happened in the Sixties.

SECONDS: Speaking of the Sixties, how was your record collection changed since then?

MOUSE: The only place that you could get records in Detroit was at Hudson’s department store. I bought a Bob Dylan record and the lady said, “You like this stuff?” I had a portable record player and I went to New York to a hot rod show and I played it seven thousand times on the way to New York. While doing the posters, the record I remember the most was Rolling Stones’s Between the Buttons. That’s their greatest record. We played that a lot.

SECONDS: What’s the last record you bought?

MOUSE: Fionna Apple. Oh, I bought Blur.

SECONDS: Did you like it?

MOUSE: I like their strange stuff but I don’t like their retro-Beatles stuff. I like my music better than anything I buy.

SECONDS: What do you do?

MOUSE: I play keyboards and play funeral dirges with a beat. My band is called The Macabre Industrial Waste Band. One of the tunes is “Hitler’s Death March.” I’m the only member of the band. I turn on the drum machine real slow and play to it. I like playing music back to myself when I’m painting it. I get totally wrapped up in myself.

SECONDS: What’s the most Psychedelic medium?

MOUSE: Well, what is Psychedelic?

SECONDS: Why don’t you answer that?

MOUSE: Psychedelic was super normal to me – just everything intense. The reality took on a super reality. It was never paisley patterns. Nature is more psychedelic than anything created by man.

SECONDS: Did you get a Grammy award for the Book of Dreams cover?

MOUSE: Alton Kelley and I did it and sent it to L.A. and the record company produced it on the cover. We were watching TV one night and we saw the Grammys and they said, “For Book of Dreams, Roy Kahara, art director.” It won a Grammy but we didn’t win it. They didn’t even tell us about it. We had to see it for ourselves on TV.

SECONDS: When did you first hook up with Alton?

MOUSE: The burning questions. That’s what they all ask. He was just hanging around The Dog House in San Francisco. A lot of people from Detroit hung around there. It was a scene and Kelley was a regular on the scene. I think Kelley lived there too. They were throwing parties which turned into The Family Dog. They finally made some money throwing some dance=concert party and they split to Mexico to score some weed. I ran across Kelley a bunch of times and he’d rap the rap and enjoyed it. He became art director for The Family Dog. We teamed up to do a couple of posters and…away we went.

SECONDS: Did it take you a while to develop a system for working?

MOUSE: At first I did all the handwork and Kelley helped me with all the concepts and art directing.

SECONDS: So he isn’t an airbrusher?

MOUSE: He is now. Over the years he got pretty good. It got to a point where he was left handed and I was right handed and we could sit at the same drawing board and we were like a four-handed monster painting away. We’d paint with our outside hands and our inside hands would manipulate pencils and erasers. We worked together for a long time like that. Then we didn’t work together for about fifteen years. About a month ago, we struck a deal with the Grateful Dead using our designs and stuff. They gave us a record cover job. It’s called Terrapin Limited. It’s a live tape featuring the song “Terrapin Station.” We did a different take on the turtles driving trains and getting off the train and walking up to this fantastic station in the sky. He came over and sat down and it was like no time passed. We don’t talk, we just start doing it. We had a secretary over and she said, “Don’t you guys ever disagree?” We really did have a cool way of working.

SECONDS: Almost psychic?

MOUSE: Yeah, it was definitely psychic.

SECONDS: It’s like that myth that you hear about the Hildebrandt Brothers where one starts on the left and one starts on the right and they meet in the middle and the composition’s done.

MOUSE: That’s pretty amazing.

SECONDS: When you were doing all these covers for the Dead, did they give you any direction on those?

MOUSE: They early ones, no. They would just say, “Do us a record cover,” and we would do it. They were always a hit. Over the years, they were working with other artists. They would have their way with other artists; “Design us this and show us what it’s like and show us the sketches…” The band was almost the artist and the art director. That’s probably why they had such horrible artwork after Kelley and me. They tried doing it with us. They wanted to see it every step of the ay and they actually changed it once. Some of he changes they made were pretty good, but they did finally come and say there weren’t art directors so we could go ahead with what we wanted.

SECONDS: But they did try their hand at it –

MOUSE: Yeah, they had been doing this over the years with other artists and getting what they want. But it’s hard; it’s like “Okay, Picasso, none of those girls with two eyeballs on one side of their face.” It’s silly. How can you tell someone what to do?

SECONDS: Well, that’s what makes an illustrator. You have to be able to take direction.

MOUSE: I did a Journey cover where I took direction.

SECONDS: I was going to say, those look like the art director beat you to death on them.

MOUSE: At first we were cool. The good Journey covers, the first three or four, were all our stuff.

SECONDS: They let you have your way? I thought they’d be staring over your shoulder?

MOUSE: They had it all planned out. It was like being a machine and it came out real stilted.

SECONDS: It must have paid nice, though

MOUSE: Yeah, that’s why I did it.

SECONDS: Those things are distinctive. I thought you and Alton together and alone are great colorists. Is it something you spent a lot of time thinking about?

MOUSE: You couldn’t tell they were airbrushed. They have that smooth look, but you couldn’t tell. Some of the stuff you see is so obvious – the same with computers nowadays. God, I hate computer artwork!

SECONDS: I used to supplement my income by doing lettering. Now they feel like they don’t need you anymore because they have ten or twenty thousand computer typefaces –

MOUSE: They even have scribbly stuff so you can’t scribble and try to fool them.

SECONDS: I saw Ed Roth come out with a disk of Ratfink typefaces. Everyone’s trying to get in on it. But you can’t get things like that without being too stiff.

MOUSE: You can always see it. There’s some computer artwork that doesn’t look like computer artwork. That’s the stuff that excels. Jim Philips has been doing some great stuff with a computer. He took the Mouse and Kelly flying eyeball and did a rendition of it that looks really cool.

SECONDS: How do you feel about that fact that a lot of people associate you with the bands for which you developed images?

MOUSE: I hate it because I feel like I’m branded. I may not like that kind of work anymore.

SECONDS: Do you feel it helped your career along, though? Do you think it had a positive effect on your wallet at least?

MOUSE: I never did make any money off of it. I mean, I made a living off of it, but never did make money. Actually, I’ve been licensing things lately and things are starting to happen. I got some Zippo lighters out there with my stuff on it, and some t-shirts…

SECONDS: What kind of images are you doing on those – back to the monsters, like you said before?

MOUSE: They did eight really classic things, like the Steve Miller Book of Dreams, a flaming wolf head – some of the classic old stuff. Then the European distributor saw them and ordered fifteen more and just started taking things out of my book.

SECONDS: The flaming wolf head – you mean the Steppenwolf cover?

MOUSE: Yeah, I like the flaming wolf on a lighter. And they’ve been selling big time – they sell all over the world. I got a royalty statement the other day from Czechoslovakia. Can you imagine my stuff in Czechoslovakia?

SECONDS: Journey is totally entwined in your designs. That’s all I remember about them – your covers.

MOUSE: Look at The Residents. All I remember about The Residents is that eyeball.

SECONDS: Is there something you’d rather do than make art?

MOUSE: Not really.

SECONDS: You feel like that’s a good way to spend your time?

MOUSE: I feel like it’s a great gift. It’s my duty to produce beauty as best I can. It’s like a responsibility now.

SECONDS: You use that word “beauty” – do you feel you’re coming across with some positivity then?

MOUSE: Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot of negative energy in the world and I’m not adding to it, that’s for sure.

SECONDS: I should mention your liver transplant – is there anything you want to say about it? That seems like a pretty intense thing – I don’t know if you feel comfortable talking about it…

MOUSE: I love talking about it. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

SECONDS: That muse have been a touching thing, having all those people stand up for you and get all that money together.

MOUSE: It was touching. But other than that I was so sick I was a goner. I had twenty-four hours to live. I didn’t want a liver transplant. It sounded like the worst thing possible. I’d rather die than have that. I almost did. At the last minute I guess my wife said, “Give him a liver, “ after I went into a coma. I was really very sick. I was a hundred and thirty-five pounds and there were a million things wrong with me. They stuck a nineteen year old liver in me and I woke up and said, “Let’s go and get a beer.”

SECONDS: Let’s get to work on this new liver.

MOUSE: I never drank beer, that’s the funny thing. I’m sure that’s how the guy lost his liver, he must have been out drinking or something. It was amazing; almost immediately I was healed. I got really healthy after that. I felt nineteen.

SECONDS: Still feeling good?

MOUSE: I still feel good. My liver’s twenty-three now. The only problem is I feel like a broken down Volkswagen with a supercharged Chrysler engine. There’s a little imbalance there, but it’s cool.

SECONDS: I saw some later photos of you and didn’t recognize you. Have you still kept all that weight off?

MOUSE: God, no.

SECONDS: So you’re back in the classic Mouse look?

MOUSE: Yeah, I’m as healthy as could be.

SECONDS: You had to raise something like $150,000?

MOUSE: What happened was I didn’t have health insurance and the liver cost $250,000. They didn’t know who I was in the hospital. Here comes a guy in a coma from liver failure. All of a sudden all these people arrive and are calling saying “save the guy.” There was this intense outpouring of love. The hospital goes, “who do we have here?” My book was just published by Roger Williams, my publisher, was really verbal about it and told them who I was and they went to work finding me a liver. Then the Grateful Dead came in and said they would back it and eased the hospital’s worries about the whole thing. I went to the top of the list because I only had a few hours to live. Miraculously I got a liver. I applied for county health and the county paid for it. Then the Dead backed out. No, they didn’t back out, but they didn’t have to pay for it. But it because of all the support that it even happened. Otherwise, I’d be six feet under.

SECONDS: That’s pretty heavy.

MOUSE: Yeah, it’s heavy, but it’s also wonderful. It’s a miracle of the wonders of modern medicine which I didn’t believe in before. I learned to love modern medicine. I go to the hospital now for flashbacks. I had a such a good trip in there that I missed the whole transplant thing because they had me so….I wasn’t there.

SECONDS: Knocked out in your bed on painkillers?

MOUSE: After I got it I went through a lot of hallucinations. Because of the bad state I was in it caused hallucinations. But they were really intense and I still remember them to this day. There were forty of them and they have sub-groups to them. They were really far-out. One of them was that my wife had five different husbands, but I was her favorite because I gave her the offspring that she liked the best. It was a fish with a jewel in its nose.

SECONDS: It sounds like a Native American tale.

MOUSE: You know how dreams go away? Well, these didn’t. I still remember them all.

SECONDS: Were they like hallucinations:

MOUSE: Not really. They were somewhere else. I was there. But I thought that Kelley had this car that when it hit 200 mph, it made a sonic boom. I had another car I thought was parked in back of the hospital and every time someone would come to visit me I’d say, “Hey, let’s go for a ride.” It was fun. I’d be conscious and the next think I know I was in Vancouver, Canada with Steve Miller riding in my car.

SECONDS: And your wife’s breast-feeding fish?

MOUSE: This was real. They’d say, “You can’t walk.” And I’d say, “What do you mean? I went swimming yesterday.” It was really fun. It was one of my best trips ever.

SECONDS: When most artists reach a certain sort of fame they become absorbed by the mainstream. Do you think you’ve become absorbed, even partially?

MOUSE: It’s happening. My stuff, just a few years ago, was cult. It’s just become mainstream on its own. The Sixties is reality now – mainstream. What we did in the Sixties, everybody is doing now, even thought they fought it for years and years. It just happened. It was prophec.

But now in the Nineties everything came back. It’s almost like a big summarization of everything. A “summer” –ization of love. I’m doing a summer of love poster and also a bummer of love poster.

SECONDS: Bummer of love? What are you going to do for that?

MOUSE: It’s a realistic scene of a Haight Street pad. A couple doing it and the guy’s looking over his shoulder and he’s got a big, fat doobie. The girl’s shooting up in her butt. They’ve got Jimi Hendrix on the record player and they’ve got a nitrous oxide tank and black light poster on the wall and a plain old mattress. Outside the window is a psychedelic shop and Hippies walking along. Like it really was.