Navigating the purple haze: Radical poster collection documents '60s Michigan rock scene

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In the ’60s, there was this belief that you could only read the boldly colored, swirling posters used to advertise rock concerts if you were tripping or stoned. Some of these posters advertising rock and other counterculture events were torn off poles, eventually adorning a dorm room wall. Most were just thrown away.

Although the epicenter of the psychedelic poster craze was located on the West Coast — practiced by artistic geniuses like Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Bonnie MacLean, Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso — Michigan had Detroiters Gary Grimshaw and Carl Lundgren, whose works rivaled their west-coast contemporaries and maybe took it to an even higher level. Poster artists Dennis Preston and Terry O’Connor are included in that group.

Michigan State University Libraries recently acquired a one-of-a-kind collection of Michigan-centric posters, ephemera, records, photographs and related material from mega-collector Jack Bodnar, 68, of Dryden. He and his spouse, Melissa Bodnar, run the marketing firm Bodnar Creative.

The collection is massive in size and scope and, according to Bodnar, is the largest collection focusing exclusively on Michigan rock ‘n’ roll material and its relationship to the political culture of the time.

How massive? It took a large truck to move the 25,000 items, which range from posters issued by Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and band promotional photographs, to papers from pro-marijuana guru John Sinclair and the photography of Leni Sinclair. One unusual item is Sinclair’s jailhouse calendar marked off with bold X’s, showing how many days he had served behind bars for possession of marijuana.

According to Leslie McRoberts, head of MSU Library Special Collections, Bodnar’s material will become a centerpiece of the Library’s Popular Culture Collection, which includes the world’s largest comic book collection, underground newspapers, anti-war handbills, gay and lesbian rights material and a variety of radicalism material.

Bodnar started collecting in high school in Southfield, tearing posters from telephone poles and bulletin boards, but gradually his collection became supersized and developed threads from artists like Gary Grimshaw, bands such as the MC5, and Sinclair’s radical political organizations such as the White Panther Party, the Rainbow People’s Party and the Trans-Love Energy Commune, accompanied by a cache of personal papers of Pun Plamondon, one of the era’s revolutionary soldiers.

Bodnar saw beyond the poster’s artistic uniqueness, recognizing they didn’t just promote a band and a venue  — they also were part of a larger cultural movement.

He said an element running through Grimshaw, Sinclair and Russ Gibb, owner of the Grande Ballroom and concert promoter, was simple: “They were passionate about what they did.”

Bodnar’s passion for collecting grew during two stints he spent at MSU studying journalism.

“There was too much going on,” he said. While at MSU, he wrote reviews for The State News and the Lansing State Journal.

“I was up all night going to concerts and then writing about them,” Bodnar said.

During his time at MSU, venues like The Brewery on Michigan Avenue and The Stables on Grand River Avenue had top-tier rock artists in the early-70s, landing acts like KISS, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent and Iggy Pop and The Stooges. The Stables, a former racehorse barn, was a more intimate venue, attracting blues and folk singers like Muddy Waters and Phil Ochs, who recorded his album “Live Again!” at the Stables in 1973.

“I remember hanging out there with Muddy Waters between sets. Those were the days when you could smoke a cigarette with Muddy while he was cooling off,” he said.

In the pre-social media era, printed material was the foremost means of communicating and Bodnar added to his growing collection while at MSU.

It is important to Bodnar that the collection resides in Michigan. He said “Other archives wanted only parts of the collection. They wanted to cherry-pick it, MSU wanted it all,” he said.

The collection is Michigan-centric and the threads Bodnar talks about are not clothing, but rather how the Michigan music scene was so intertwined with the counterculture movement.

“Most people want to just collect posters,” he said. There are an estimated 1,000 in the Melisa and Jack Bodnar collection.

He believes that the collection is the largest of its type, as far as Michigan-centric archives are concerned.

“There’s no other collection that’s even close,” he said.

Collectors like Ed Sander, founder of the counterculture rock band, The Fugs, and an icon of the ’60s, may have more material, but there’s no context or focus in the collection Bodnar says.

As an example of the focus Bodnar sought, he cites a 45-record single by The MC5 pressed by A-Squared in Ann Arbor, a small record recording studio. There are several in the collection, but one of the records has a stain from a wineglass.

“Sinclair used it as a coaster,” he said.

The “thread” may be best represented by the iconic 1971 “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” poster promoting the Ann Arbor concert to free Sinclair released from prison. Performers included John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Seger and Stevie Wonder.

There are numerous originals and reissues of the poster, but a beat-up, faded poster with tears and pinpricks where it had been posted on a bulletin board or wall stands out.

“It had been on the wall of Sinclair’s rooms for decades, and was infused with marijuana smoke 24/7,” he said.

He also points to the highly collectible postcards sent out by the Grande Ballroom and illustrated by Gary Grimshaw and Carl Lundgren

“Every card tells a story,” he said.

Russ Gibb, who died last year, was affectionately called “Uncle Russ” after his DJ handle for WKNR radio and was the impresario of the Grande Ballroom. He first garnered attention for the “Paul McCartney is Dead” hoax, and was Detroit’s answer to the West Coast’s Bill Graham — the promoter at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco. In 1966, Gibb visited with Graham and used many of his ideas like electric light shows back home at the Grande Ballroom. Detroit artist Gary Grimshaw was there to implement the high poster art and light shows. The Grande Ballroom closed in 1972.

Following a pot bust, Carl Lundgren replaced Grimshaw as the poster artist at the Grande, and later became a noted illustrator of science fiction and fantasy books.

Sinclair was a presence at the Grande Ballroom, and the revolutionary MC5 became the house band, blasting out loud-loud ear busting music in the dark, smoke laced dance hall. No alcohol was served, but most of the attendees didn’t need hops to get high.

In the Bodnar collection there are numerous handbills, posters and related material from the Grande. He also had collected several architectural elements from the Grande, which will be sent to the Detroit Historical Society.

Bodnar said he wasn’t into the Grande scene, but was drawn more to smaller venues like the Hideout in Harper Woods, the Palladium in Birmingham and the Cavern and Melody Ballroom.

Bodnar is looking forward to the collection being cataloged, although it is already well organized. The more than 120 loose-leaf notebooks jammed with photos, tickets, business cards and other ephemera speak to that.

He plans on doing a “walk-through” of the collection where he will provide the threads that sew the collection together.

There are plans for an exhibit based on the collection are in the future.

McRoberts theorizes that the collection will attract the interest of other collectors who want to see the music and art of the counterculture ’60s preserved.

Susan Whitall, an MSU graduate who worked as a music writer for Creem Magazine and The Detroit News for decades, supports the idea of her alma mater building a collection relating to Michigan Music.

“Music really tells the history of our culture, politics and sociology. Music is a lot of fun and colorful. It’s only recently that museums have recognized the importance of music in our culture,” she said.

“Music is a window on time and at the time we thought the material was ephemera. We’re lucky anyone collected it,” said Whitall, who saw plenty of “it” cross her desk at Creem and The Detroit News.

Whitall aided the Birmingham Museum in assembling their permanent exhibit on Creem Magazine and also consulted on the recent documentary on Creem. She is the author of a biography on Detroit musician Little Willie John, “Fever,” and edited a book on Joni Mitchell.

Collectors often find it hard to pick a favorite piece.

But Bodnar said his favorite is the rare Robin Summers’ piece for Dialogue ’68, a countercultural event at the First Unitarian Church in 1968 featuring The Stooges and The MC5. Complete with swirling type and a Leni Sinclair photo of The MC5, the poster is one of the rarest of its kind.

Another of his favorites is a poster by Carl Lundgren for the Grande Ballroom with a naked Vanessa Redgrave in the foreground advertising the James Cotton Blues Band. “It epitomizes the whole poster art scene,” Bodnar said.

What Bodnar calls the biggest surprise will be a big surprise to readers. He points to the work Lansing resident Terry O’Connor did for the Brewery for performers like Rick Nelson, Chris Jagger and Styx.

“O’Connor stands with Grimshaw,” Bodnar said.

McRoberts said, “As a teenager, music was a way to express myself — and a way to direct the energy — it was a form of expression. Punk still lives in me.”

McRoberts said one of the tenants of the White Panther Party was, “Everything free for everybody.” That statement has come full-circle in that the MSU Special Collections will make the collection available to the world, said MSU Director of Libraries Joe Salem.

“We’re not locking it up," Salem said. 'We want to get such a rich musical history in the hands of students and researchers. This collection takes us back to the roots of our special collections and a focus on regional and local history.”

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