From the TCJ Archives

An Interview with Victor Moscoso

The Counterculture

GROTH: You started doing work on Zap in ’68. Now, the counterculture was in full bloom at the time. Could you describe your relationship to the counterculture? How deeply involved in it were you, or how deeply did you feel a part of it?

MOSCOSO: Oh, I was very much a part of it. Not only did I do posters for the Avalon and the Matrix, but I would go there. When I did my Junior Wells poster, I went to the Matrix; I went backstage and introduced myself to Junior Wells. He had me stand up and take a bow. He says, “I would like the fellow who did this terrific poster for the concert and his beautiful wife to stand up and take a bow. Once I started doing the posters, I never paid to go anywhere. I would go to the Fillmore, I’d say, “I’m Victor Moscoso, poster artist,” at the back door. They let me in. I’d just walk right into the Avalon. I’d walk into the back rooms. I usually would walk into the musicians’ room first, or the light booth, where the light show was. I knew a lot of the light-show people. I knew the musicians. I would say I was thoroughly enmeshed in the counterculture.

GROTH: Did you feel as if you were living in revolutionary times in terms of culture and politics?

MOSCOSO: Yes. Not at first. Not when I did my first poster. But by the spring of ’67, it was very obvious. No longer was the writing on the wall; the posters were on the wall. The scene was very developed, and heading straight for self-destruction. It was then that I realized that popularity destroys, or, rather success destroys. Success destroys that which brings success. I saw John Huston’s Moulin Rouge. There’s one part in that movie where a person walks up to Toulouse-Lautrec, and compliments him on the beautiful posters that he has done for the Moulin Rouge. And Jose Ferrer, who’s playing the part of Toulouse-Lautrec, looks up with a sneer and says, “Yes. I helped destroy the Moulin Rouge.” And I remember the time that I saw this, I didn’t quite get it, but it stuck in my mind. Well, I saw the same thing happen to the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore. By the summer of ’67, what had brought all that success had destroyed what was there prior. If there was a Summer of Love, it was 1966.

GROTH: What do you think it destroyed exactly?

MOSCOSO: Its popularity. Here’s the thing: if you’ve got a neighborhood, like the Haight-Ashbury, you can have flowers out on your lawn or your windowbox; you could know everybody in the neighborhood and have a kind of familial community feeling that cannot exist when a million people are walking down the street. It became a zoo. Not only that, because it was love, peace, drugs, sex, free love, well, it was like a goldfish pond. In no time at all the sharks showed up. After all, what do sharks do? So you got these speed freaks that show up from New York and they kill and mutilate the body of this LSD dealer on the Haight, named Superspade. That’s when I knew it was over. Part of his body was found in the trunk of a car, and part of his body was found somewhere else. This is the way you do it in New York. Literally. You get rid of your competition.

GROTH: Elaborate on that for me, if you will. Do you think it was destroyed because the original impetus became corrupted or co-opted?

MOSCOSO: No, no. Success destroys by making it so popular that it changes it. If you’ve got a thousand people walking up and down the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, you have a neighborhood. If you have a million people walking up and down the Haight-Ashbury, you have anarchy. It’s not the same. You can’t have a free store. There used to be a free store, there on Haight Street in ’66. If you had clothes you didn’t need, you’d take them to the store. If you needed clothes, you went to the store. It actually worked. But only for a certain number of people. If you have a million people, all of them needing clothing, you don’t have free store, because it’d all be cleaned out.

GROTH: That leads to Wal-Marts. Were you ever among those people who thought the counterculture represented, or that there was a potential for a structural change in America?

MOSCOSO: Yes. What I thought was that a benevolent virus had fallen on San Francisco, and it was spreading over the country and eventually over the world. I was wrong. Because as soon as it started to spread and become popular, all the sharks moved in: big companies, violent drug dealers, man. It wasn’t the same any more. It changed.

GROTH: What did you think this society would be transformed into?

MOSCOSO: Like the Haight-Ashbury was, where you’d have free stores. After all, we’re a nation of excess. We were throwing away perfectly good food. The Diggers had free food. They would go around to restaurants and get the food the restaurants were going to throw away. They would then have a kitchen and dispense food for free. It made perfect sense. Why throw away good stuff when you can give it away to people who need it? This was going to be the new model. And I thought that this virus would actually amount to an anti-greed virus — which I’m still working on, by the way. I’d better hurry up. An anti-greed virus that would go around and it was even like religious. Like here was Rick Griffin, who looked just like Jesus Christ, and people were hating him because he looked like their savior. Hey, wait a minute. What’s wrong with this picture? Why don’t you like long hair? Jesus had long hair. Actually, Jesus probably didn’t have long hair; he probably had short, cropped hair, because that was the style at the time. But as it’s come down to us today, in our mythology, he had long hair. Why would these people hate us so much, when we looked like the people they worshipped? So, I figured all this was going to change. But I was wrong. I was, unfortunately, very wrong. What it was is once we got popular, the advertising agencies got ahold of our work, or our style, and they came up with a vaccine for the benevolent virus. So that greed would triumph forever over generosity.

When the counterculture movement was happening, that’s when Reagan got elected governor of California. I’ve heard people say the ’60s is the worst thing to happen to the United States. I hear that, and I say, “Boy, were we that good?” Think about it: for about five years, psychedelic art became the official art of rock-n-roll. Even beyond. I ran across a Supremes album cover. Supremes are Motown, they’re not psychedelic. But the title to their album was done in fake psychedelic lettering. They felt obligated to use the psychedelic lettering because that’s what was selling. That was it. That was what you did if you were in the record business. That’s how important we were, and how we got digested by the dominant culture. And that’s where it went. You dilute it, then you lose it and then you go on to the next thing that’s coming along.

GROTH: And there’s no way to stop that.

MOSCOSO: No. I never went to any protest. I’m a political fellow, in my ideals, but I never went to any political gathering or any of those things, because it’s not my thing and I don’t think they do much — although I could be corrected there. It’s not the way I would work. I think that my artwork did more than my physical body out on the street, trying to change The Man.

GROTH: Does that reflect a loner point of view you have?

MOSCOSO: No. I think it’s practical. If you’re in Brooklyn, and there’s a big gang that’s got weapons, you don’t take them on. And what’s the United States government, but a big gang with weapons?

GROTH: Right, right, but those protests probably went some way toward ending the war.

MOSCOSO: Oh, no. I do think they did, but that was not because of the kids. That was because of the middle class coming out, the parents of the kids started realizing their kids are right; this is bullshit. What are we doing in Vietnam? They’re no threat to us. Like Muhammad Ali said, “I ain’t never been threatened by no Viet Cong.” But he’s been threatened by the United States government, in fact was punished. I don’t particularly care for Howard Cosell. He’s the kind of guy that stands up in the front of you during the ball game and keeps you from seeing the ball game. However, Howard Cosell stood by Muhammad Ali’s side, and said, “You have no right to strip this man of his heavyweight title.” He was the only guy in the establishment that stood by Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali never forgot that. That’s why every Muhammad Ali boxing event, after he returned, had Howard Cosell as one of the announcers.

GROTH: Cosell was actually a pretty intelligent guy.

MOSCOSO: He was an intelligent guy. [Imitating Cosell’s voice] “Well there certainly was a plethora of hits in that inning!” Plethora of hits! What the fuck is that? I had to go to the dictionary. He’s a sports announcer! It means, “many” hits. What the fuck are you doing? Just announce the game, man. Don’t make me go to my dictionary. That was his shtick, which I didn’t care for. But, I gotta admire him for the stand that he took with Muhammad Ali. That was very courageous of him. He was the only one of the white establishment to
side with him.

GROTH: The war must have been in the forefront of your political —

MOSCOSO: Yeah, I didn’t like the war. I didn’t see what I could do to stop the war. However, I may have helped to some degree, like all of the artists and musicians, by providing an alternative to the established way of thinking and doing things was. In an indirect, not in any direct way.

GROTH: But you were creating a cultural context that was the antithesis of the cultural context that approved of the war.

MOSCOSO: And a cultural context that was being absorbed by the dominant culture. See, that’s a way of getting in.

GROTH: At what point did you feel that that was happening?

MOSCOSO: By the spring of ’67, things were starting to get pretty obvious to me. It was all the hype about the Summer of Love.

GROTH: That early? That was prescient.

MOSCOSO: I had my art history to draw from. That’s one of the good things about school. If you know the past, you can look into the future. I saw that the posters were getting ripped off the walls and being sold in shops — bing! I thought of Toulouse-Lautrec’s time. Exactly the same thing was going on then.

GROTH: How optimistic were you, when you started work for Zap, about the comix movement that you were becoming a part of?

MOSCOSO: Well I was very optimistic in that the artists were controlling their own work and owning their own work. This, to me, was major, because that was the first time, really. Because, unfortunately, I lost interest in comics when Harvey Kurtzman — one of my all-time heroes — wanted 51 percent of Mad instead of just going 50-50 with Gaines. And as a result, was out. He missed it. He should have gone 50-50.

GROTH: Well, I think Gaines would have allowed him 49-51.

MOSCOSO: Well, providing that he kept artistic control. You can take the profits. You can cut any kind of a deal you want. You get the 51, but I retain artistic control.

It was a bad move for Harvey, because after that Little Annie Fanny was OK, fine, but that wasn’t like Mad. And once Mad went to the magazine format, they lost me. In the same way that Raw lost me when they went to the small format. I liked it when it was big. I liked Mad when it was a real comic, with color.

GROTH: You read Mad as a kid?

MOSCOSO: Not only did I read Mad as a kid, me and a couple of friends, like Pablo Ferro, went down to the EC offices on Lafayette Street hoping to meet Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood. Actually, they worked at home for the most part, but we did get to meet Al Feldstein and Jack Kamen, and Al Feldstein autographed a copy of Weird Science. I still have that somewhere. It was at that time that we found out that EC was planning to come out with a humor comic called Mad. So when Mad came out, I bought the first issue, second issue, third issue. My mother threw out #1 and 2. Mothers and wars are the greatest destroyers of art. Number one! How could you do that, Mom?! She kept #3. What’s going on here? Who knows. But I have the copy of #3 that I bought off the stands. I loved Mad. First of all, I loved the artists. Look at the line art. Severin, Elder, Wood, Kurtzman and his calligraphic-brush line. I really dug him, man. Also he was a writer. And that was it for me with comics, because after that I went into design and illustration and fine arts, and it was only ’til posters and Zap that I got back into the comics again.