Pollock and The Poster People: From The Coventry Courier
Photo by Jason Kaczorowski
It was a deluge of Biblical proportions.
But the posters stayed dry.
The heavens opened and the dramatic downpour began about halfway through the first set of Phish’s show at Coney Island on June 17. However, while the fans around him got soakedand many suffered the calamity of a wet poster tube Eric Ross was prepared.
"It was quite an ordeal," Ross, of New York City, reflected. "I had [my poster tube] and three others wrapped in several plastic bags and kept it all tied to my belt, under my poncho. I was responsible for the security of several posters, and in turn the happiness of many Phish fans."
Ross is only a casual collector, who made his first (unsuccessful) attempt to purchase a Phish concert poster at the Fleet Center last fall.
"I have a few, but I’m not a poster nutbag," he stresses.
The fact that he and his friends arrived at the show armed with an unopened box of trash bags to protect their posters demonstrates the extent to which the poster craze has entered the day-of-show routines of many Phish fans.
While special "event posters" are nothing new to the Phish scene, the skyrocketing hype surrounding themboth at the show and in the later re-sale marketis a post-hiatus phenomenon. The situation has caused many tense scenes at the point of sale of posters before shows, and created a new fetish item among fans with a long history of obsessively cataloging the Phish experience. Accordingly, a whole new community has sprung up among the "poster people", to stand as yet another subgenre within the world of Phish fans.
Where tapes of last night’s show once provided leverage in trades for tickets and such, "low numbered Pollock" have now become the ultimate bargaining chip in the scene. Indeed, rumors about posters (and the specific artist who produced them) now circulate in the lot pre-show alongside the old standards like a prediction of a Giant Country Horns appearance.
Artist Jim Pollock, a onetime roommate of Page whose collaboration with the band dates back even before he created the album art for Junta, stands at the center of the phenomenon. Word of a Pollock print is sure to create a particularly crazed scene at the poster table, and his works garner the most consistently inflated prices on the resale market.
"It’s just crazy. I saw what happened with the band as well…and they’ve been pretty good at handling the craziness as well, of people wanting to own what you’re doing," Pollock reflected. "Seeing how Phish handled a lot of their success, they’re good people to watch in terms of handling yourself in a situation where your stuff is coveted."
These limited edition prints are usually held to a run of six hundred to one thousand copies, and are typically hand-numbered and sometimes signed by the artist. Nowadays they tend to cost between $40 and $50 at the initial purchase. For the work of an artist as highly sought-after as Pollock, the re-sale price can fluctuate from $200 to over $500. The average re-sale price for post-hiatus work of other artists tends to hover from about $100 to $200, though peak sales often exceed the average significantly.
The hiatus-ending new year’s show at Madison Square Garden in 2002 proved to be the beginning not just of a new musical era for the band, but the point at which the Phish poster phenomenon escalated beyond all expectations. While the artwork by Scott Campbell was well-received by many, the sales experience that night provoked a wholesale change in the way that Phish concert posters are distributed.
"His head was bleeding"
Immediately after the doors opened, thick crowds thronged around several official merchandise stands throughout the venue. The posters hadn’t been distributed to all the merchandise outlets yet, and things got tense as the minutes ticked by and the hallways grew more crowded. At least two stands actually sold empty tubes before distraught fans noted the error. When the poster sales finally began, there was much jostling and some attendants temporarily halted the process until order was restoredthe technique proved counterproductive.
"It was unlike anything I had ever seen," recalled Greg Pope, of Irvine, CA. "The first thing that came to mind that night while trying to get a poster was WWF wrestling. It was just ridiculous. There were people pushing each other. No fights breaking out, but it was a physical mob scene at the poster tables."
Pope contrasts this with the manner in which he purchased the Halloween 1998 poster: from Phish Dry Goods, several weeks after the show. Copies of this piece have since been sold for as much as $650.
The entire sale process was revamped for the next show, in Hampton. There was one specially designated poster table, and thus one line for everybody. This kept the chaos relatively contained, but some complain of inadequate staffing, and recall another mob scene. The fact that Jim Pollock created the Hampton posters did nothing to quell the situation.
"It was hell," said Scott Gordon, of Sudbury, MA. "Very hectic. It was just a mess… I just remember everyone running and shoving."
Some who were successful the first two nights then used their posters to trade for the ultra-hard Hampton tickets. Others turned them around on the internet auction site EBay for no less than $500 apiece. Some concertgoers ostensibly funded their entire trip by selling their Pollock prints.
The most ugly Phish poster sales situation seems to have been at last summer’s IT festival, when hundreds of sun-baked fans waited for hours and then dashed through the mud in search of the poster table. Chase "The Wiz" Turner, of St. Paul, MN, said it was his most distressing and claustrophobic experience ever in a large crowd.
"All hell broke loose. No one knew exactly where the posters were, so
people were running in every direction full sprint, as mud flew all
over the place," Turner remembered. "As the crowd surged into
the small fenced area, I got the wind knocked out of me and I could not
breathe because there were so many people. Everyone was screaming to
stop pushing. I looked at the guy in front of me and his head was bleeding."
The IT poster fiasco seems to have influenced the decision to sell the Coventry posters ahead of time, online.
"I’ve heard some pretty bad stories about people beating each other up," Pollock said. "We did this one for Coventry specifically to avoid any kind of melee and trying to keep the whole scene at the actual event from being about trying to get a poster."
These examples notwithstanding, the poster sales process has become relatively orderly since the growing pains of the "reunion run" of 2003-2003. Some collectors interviewed for this article cited Chicago and Noblesville as scenes of particularly calm poster sales. At the first Coney Island show in June, fans casually progressed through the poster line, which, in an unusual move, was actually set up outside the venue. Nevertheless, at general admission venues like the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, fans line up for hours not just to secure a great seat for the night, but to get to the poster line fast enough.
A new "scene within a scene"
Despite the monolithic "dreadlock and wool sweater" stereotype that the mainstream media still sometimes like to lazily assign to the Phish scene, fans understand their community to be a diverse assembly of numerous subgroups. The "poster people" have now emerged to claim their place.
"The Phish poster scene is one of what I consider to be the best scenes within a scene that there is. For a time there, phishposters.com was literally the best Phish message board around," asserted Todd Levy, creator of the Phish poster site robotwent.com. "People make posts on there on topics ranging well beyond the posters, but they’re all there because these are the kinds of guys you could sit around with in a bar and talk about Phish posters for three hours and it wouldn’t seem weird."
The name of Levy’s site is a reference to one of Pollock’s posters for The Great Went, which Levy calls "one of the holy grails of Phish poster collecting." The piece has sold for as much as $6,600 individually, and for $15,000 in total as a set with Pollock’s other Great Went poster. Both posters were printed by the artist on a portable printing press in the festival’s "village". He performed the same feat at the Clifford Ball.
In today’s environment, such an act seems unthinkable. However, Pollack said that he’d like to try another on-site printing experience in some context.
"I’m in the market for a larger hand press. I’d definitely be into doing that sometime, in some way doing some printing in front of a live audience. That would be fun to do it again. I’m sure it’s totally feasible."
Thomas Davis, whose site expressobeans.com has become the flagship of the poster scene, said that the development has put him in touch with a community of like-minded Phish fans.
"I found myself getting intertwined with all these people who had really good values and really good ideals and were collecting posters," he said. "It was a very interesting thing. Most of them have families, and were just like me." Davis credits a dedicated group of volunteers who keep expressobeans.com at the vanguard of the community, by logging hours performing such tasks as adding new pieces of art to the archive, and manually updating the EBay auction history for existing entries.
Davis originally started his site specifically to track the work of Pollock, but it now includes information on rock posters relating to hundreds of different bands. The site features information about fan art as well as official art, and includes a feature by which users register the prints they are looking for, as well as prints they are willing to trade.
So why the drive to collect posters? To wait in line for hours to get one? To chart their progress through the re-sale market? To discuss this and every other conceivable aspect of the phenomenon? For those who maximize their posters’ value on EBay, the answer is obvious. But what of those who spend months, or even years, tracking down one particular Pollock to put on their wall?
"I ask a lot of people what they buy posters for. And I think it’s about the emotion. There’s something about it that brings [a given poster] into context for that particular person. It’s all very personal, very emotional," Davis mused. "Rock art is about music, and there’s nothing more emotional than music. And people buy rock posters because of this emotional connection that they have. They see the band and they translate it into this poster and they take it home and it becomes a part of that context."
Does it make sense to non-collectors?
"Obviously my wife thinks I’m completely insane," Levy admitted.
Jeremy D. Goodwin is a writer located north of Boston. He is on the Board of Directors of The Mockingbird Foundation (www.mbird.org), and edited the Show Reviews chapter of the second edition of The Phish Companion, now available from Backbeat Books.