Summer of Love

Story: David Bolling & Stanley Mouse
Photos: Steven Krause

It was supposed to be the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the birth of a New Age, a cultural and spiritual renaissance, liberation from the stifling norms of straight living and corporate conformity, freedom to explore, freedom to love, indulge, taste, express anything and everything, a time—as Timothy Leary so famously and relentlessly told us—to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”

The artistic essence of that seminal period has been captured gloriously by the de Young museum in San Francisco, where an exhibit on “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll” continues to August 20. If you weren’t around 50 years ago, the de Young has a lot to show you; and if you’re a former flower child you can relive the past with no fear of a bad trip.

The cultural and temporal womb for this amorphous movement became, by some sort of viral, coast-to-coast understanding, San Francisco during the 1967 Summer of Love. Party Central was, of course, the Haight-Ashbury district, along with the adjacent Golden Gate Park which had already hosted the famous January 14 Human Be-In, where the world got an eyeful of hippie happiness. There was hope and harmony floating on waves of pot smoke, and for a time it almost felt like a curtain had parted, a veil had lifted and a wondrous new reality had emerged.

But a lot of people missed the memo.

Open the layers of the Sixties Sandwich and the first thing you find is not love but war—a searing, blistering, shocking war in Vietnam, brought directly into the living rooms of America by network TV. Men and boys, women and girls were killing and being killed in staggering numbers for reasons not everyone was clear on, and in graphic detail never before seen so quickly and clearly across the country.

Peel back that layer and you find the explosive anger from a century and more of racism and segregation, expressed in 159 race riots that tore apart American cities—from Newark (26 dead) to Detroit (43 dead) to Milwaukee (4 dead) and Portland—in 1967 alone, all of them during July and August, ironically coincident with the Summer of Love.

But there was much more going on in 1967 than love and war. One of the most underrated cultural developments of the twentieth century—the legal availability of safe and cheap contraception in the form of a tiny pill or an insertable IUD suddenly liberated a new generation from the fears and complexities of pregnancy giving free love (or its sexual expression) a whole new meaning. Young people mated like rabbits and college campuses began to witness rampant nudity, sometimes expressed at public events during the early days of the streaking craze.

Meanwhile at Sonoma Valley High School, just 41 miles from the epicenter of the revolution in San Francisco, life seemed utterly unaffected by the winds of change, albeit not unnoticed.

In the 1967 SVHS yearbook—then called “El Padre”—second-year principal Max Murray wrote a brief reference to the world outside of school.

“What is the sign of our time?” he asked. “Change,” he answered, “and the challenge it brings. Here at Sonoma High our challenge is to prepare you to enter a world of steadily accelerating change, found in every field—higher education, military service, vocations, homemaking. Our sincere desire is that the years you have spent here will have given you a solid foundation from which to move forward.”

There is no evidence of tie-dyed T-shirts or long hair on boys in any of the yearbook photos and all the male teachers wear ties. Back then Tom Ross was senior class president, Pam Robbins was vice president and graduating seniors included one Andrieux and one Bundschu.

Of the 208 seniors appearing in the yearbook, two had Latino last names but looked white, and two were African-American.

As a class, as a school, as a small town, the pages of the 1967 yearbook reveal a world untouched by the disruptions rippling across America.

Judging from that yearbook and the clean-cut appearance of the students inside, Sonoma parents must have been relieved their children had not been heeding the Pied Piper call of Timothy Leary, whose advice to students wherever he spoke was an acid-infused rejection of the prevailing mores. In one of several LPs and tapes Leary produced during his time as a New Age prophet, this was his message:

“We tell young people today to drop out of school because school’s education today is the worst narcotic drug of all.

“Don’t politic, don’t vote, they’re old men’s games, senile impotent old men. They want to put you into their old chess games of war and power. Drop out. Tune in with natural things. Take off your shoes, get back in tune with God’s harmony, surround yourself with beauty and sacred objects.

“You can’t get caught in the conforming rote lockstep which we call American society.”

It would only be a year before the School District sent letters home to selected parents warning that rumors indicated some of their children were using drugs.

Timothy Leary’s was just one voice in the chorus growing from the movement that found expression in that fateful summer of 1967. Another entirely different voice—more a look than a voice—belonged to a mouse named Stanley. Stanley Mouse was born Stanley Miller and his father, somewhat remarkably given how things turned out, early on worked as an artist on Walt Disney’s original opus, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a job Mouse has since described as “slave labor.”

Mouse himself has studiously avoided corporate captivity of any kind and spent his growing up years in Detroit where he fell in love with cars and picked up a junior high school nickname that stuck. As a budding artist he discovered the airbrush and used it first to paint flames on local hot rods, later tranSFerring his skills to T-shirts. Art and cars made total sense in Detroit, and before long Mouse was painting monsters in hot rods on T-shirts at car shows, a practice that made him so much money he was the only kid in his high school with his own Corvette.

Better to let Mouse tell the rest of that story in his own words, submitted here as part of a recent interview.

“In 1956 I was a 16-year-old kid in high school, drawing hot rods and Mad Magazine-type cartoons. I had my monster character that I drew all the time. I was busy pin-striping and painting flames and pictures on cars.

“I studied the little hot rod magazines that came out of the West Coast. I noticed there were guys airbrushing monsters in hot rods on sweatshirts. I immediately bought an airbrush. Ten thousand sweatshirts later, I moved to San Francisco.

“In 1958, I asked my parents to help me get a booth to paint sweatshirts at the Michigan State Fair. I airbrushed shirts in fluorescent colors for 10 days, in between the clown taunting the public to dump him into the pool of water and on the other side a shooting gallery. I started to deliriously dream at night in fluorescent colors. In the ninth day, I signed my name ‘money’ instead of ‘mouse’ in a delirious state. I was riding a big wave of a new fad that swept across America.

“I started painting shirts at the Autoramas, a string of hot rod and custom car shows in the East and Midwest. I became the richest kid in the 12th grade, driving a new Corvette. For three or four years, I airbrushed at car shows and brought out a 48-page catalog/magazine called More of the Most by Mouse.

An artist named Big Daddy Roth painted shirts or had other artists paint shirts for him. He designed and built fantastic hot rod and futuristic cars. He had some very good artists working for him. Meanwhile, I had the exclusive rights to paint shirts at the Autorama shows.

“I went to one in Pittsburgh and there was Big Daddy, wanting to paint shirts there. I talked to him and he told me that he would teach me how to make $300 at a car show rather than $100. Shirts went for about $6.50 each.

“I took the challenge and let him paint there. He sat on a tiny stool and had no shirt on. He was 6 feet tall and about 300 pounds, with a big belly. He airbrushed in black on white sweatshirts.

“I was faster and did mine in full color. He made $300, and I made $1,000. He referred to me a lot as ‘rat fink.’

“Big Daddy Roth took my catalog home to L.A. and took it to Monte, the very first artist who did hot rod-type cartoons. Roth instructed him to design the rat fink, a combination of the rat or mouse I always drew on shirts and my monster character, “Fred Flypogger.” Roth made Monte sign away his copyright and he put his name on it.

“I painted some more at car shows that Roth showed up at, including Madison Square Garden the day JFK was assassinated, and Detroit Autorama. We held a friendly/taunting/joking relationship, sending funny and sometimes evil messages to one another. In an auto show in Rhode Island, Roth got into an argument with an artist who worked for him and kicked him out of the truck. I picked the guy up and he ended up working for me. We painted together for a few years. His name was Richard Ash. He went by “Ash.”

“I airbrushed monster shirts on weekends and during the week I went to art school in Detroit. I once bought a new Porsche C coupe (for $3,500). The Detroit Autorama was going on and Big Daddy Roth was in town. I asked him if he would pin-stripe the Porsche. He was an excellent striper. He did it at the Porsche dealer’s, who was very German and didn’t like me putting pinstripes on a new Porsche. But it looked really great.”

Mouse went from Detroit to San Francisco and a pioneering career painting concert posters and album covers for some of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll. He picks up the narrative here:

“In 1965 I dropped out of art school and went to San Francisco. I actually lived in Berkeley in a little windmill on Telegraph Avenue. I met a lot of people that were having parties in SF. Then I got drafted.

“I returned to Detroit to face the draft board. I don’t know how much acid I took that morning, but they wouldn’t take me into the army. I immediately returned to SF. In Detroit they had “drive aways,” a public car delivery system. All they had that time was a Caddy hearse. That was perfect; I put a ‘Make Love Not War’ sticker on the back window, loaded up my stuff, girlfriend ‘Suzi’ and dog, and left for the West Coast. We showed up the night of the acid test, but were way too tired to go in.

“The Family Dog was formed while I was away, because the parties just kept getting bigger and bigger until they needed a hall. The way they advertised the parties in the halls was by posters, and they called the events ‘dance concerts.’ When I showed back up, Alton Kelley was the art director of the Family Dog. They were throwing dance concerts at the Avalon Ballroom and Bill Graham saw the opportunity to cash in and did them at the Fillmore ballroom.

“Kelley and I started working together on posters. My hand was like a trained athlete from all the airbrushing on shirts I had done previously, and Kelley was a great idea man. I think one of the first posters we did together was the skeleton and roses poster (for the Grateful Dead). Searching in the SF library, we found the Edmond Sullivan illustration and used it for the poster. That became history.

“Then we did the Zig Zag poster. Two home runs. We knew we were doing something important. The scene was still young and it had time to grow and it did, culminating in the summer of love. We did a poster a week for maybe a year. Mostly for the Family Dog, but sometimes for the Fillmore, and later Winterland. In the book Art of Rock, we had about 90 posters.

“After 1967, the scene died. I left for England in late 1968.”

Stanley Mouse is a living artifact of the Summer of Love, but more than that he remains a highly active artist, reproducing some of his classic work for the de Young exhibit, which features him prominently, and enshrined in a spectacular art book, The Art of Stanley Mouse—California Dreams, with text by Blair Jackson and page-after-page of Mouse art.

For 20 years Mouse was a Sonoma resident, a time he describes as “the best 20 years of my life. I loved that town.” Today he lives in Sebastopol, where he has a studio/warehouse and a staggering collection of his own art, some unique guitars and a former session grand piano he got in L.A. with the autographs of numerous rock ’n’ roll luminaries, including the Beatles and Elvis.  

You can catch up with Stanley Mouse on his website, mousestudios.com.v

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