If I may name drop and schmooze Bobby Bittman-style for a moment, Crispin Kott is a close, personal friend of mine. Kindred spirit music dorks with a taste for BritPop and RiffTrax, it was all but predestined that we’d eventually work on something together. That opportunity came fall 2017 when he asked if I thought I could pull off editorial illustration. He and writing partner Mike Katz were prepping a volume of quotes, anecdotes, lists and other curiosa pulled from 50+ years of rock and roll history. The Little Book of Rock And Roll Wisdom was fast taking shape and it needed some artwork to give it all a look and feel to help tie together so many different vibes and voices. You had several hundred pages cataloguing everything from Mick Jagger’s thoughts on men’s footwear to Gene Simmons’ very canine estimation of his own libido, so naturally you’d want something to make it all feel of a piece. Of course I was in, but was this something I could do? Not just was I available, but was I capable? And to put things in reverse for a second, if I was capable was I even available?
2017 was a pretty crazily productive year, with marquee projects like the California State Fair anniversary poster, my first-ever piece for Metallica, several gigposters for Kings of Leon, a pretty demanding day job, a side gig designing a magazine every other month, and all the other short bursts of side work that kept me in bread and jam. After all that, I was coasting into November of that year on fumes. The parts of me that weren’t physically drained were mentally and creatively spent. And now I was going to take on 4 and a half dozen distinct illustrations in a style I’d have to come up with (I always design with an eye toward what the project needs rather than my own whim) for a form I’d never really worked in. Sure, I’d done some spot illos for magazines and newspapers here and there, and what are my gigposters if not illustrations but still, the thought of committing myself to something like this was daunting to say the least. Still, it was too plum a gig to not take on. I’d accept the gig and then figure out how to do it. Throw my hat over the fence, as it were. A philosophy that has guided more of my career than is probably safe to admit.
OK, So What The Hell Do I Do Now?
I needed to figure out a style for this thing. I pride myself in not having a set style to sell, preferring instead to work in whatever style feels like a good fit for whichever project I’m working on at the time. Sure, there’s commonalities in my work that come across to give my stuff a kind of look, but I’ve never been all that interested in being “The Guy That Does X Thing”. There’s just too many things I want to do in my work and, besides, they say dancing is just anything you can do twice, so if I am going to have a “style” let it come from there rather than working in a visual schtick.
I decided to start—quite literally—at the start. They never asked me to design the cover, I wasn’t contracted to design the cover, and in fact they already had someone in-house that does that. But for my won sake of finding the right way “in” to this project, I decided to design a cover.
The name drove a lot of where I’d go with it. “The Little Book of Rock And Roll Wisdom” conjured all kinds of stuff in my brain: first grade workbooks, PBS shows from when I was a kid, Golden Books…especially Golden Books. It might be a bit pat, but what about an owl? That’s pretty universal, ties into the concept of “wisdom”, and there are endless ways to work music ephemera into its design. So that’s what I did: a wise old owl, with cassette spool eyes, a guitar pick nose, unspooled tape and concert tickets for plumage, and 45 adapters for feet. Some of the tickets used even belonged to the authors, giving things a bit more soul and meaning than if I’d just pulled stock. I even shot a picture of my own vinyl collection’s spines to work into the background. The color palate a lively scholastic red and teal, recalling textbooks and standardized test forms from when I was a kid. I wasn’t hired to make a cover but I did and through that I had my look.
Onward, Into the Drink
As relieved as I was to have my aesthetic established, I was now equally stressed by the project now becoming real. Before this, coming up with fifty-some illustrations in the next five weeks (that’s 12 a week. Why on earth did I do the math? Oh boy, this is gonna be tough) was still somewhat theoretical. Now it was all underway and I had to push on and actually deliver. With the holidays coming up no less which meant the weekends I’d normally grind out work were going to be getting taken over by family, friends, and work engagements.
I started small, with reusable spot illos tied more to basic concepts. The kinds of objects that could be reused throughout without commenting too directly on any of the content. Things like guitar pedals, cassettes, guitar picks, etc. That helped me get a toe into the waters before the real heavy lifting: coming up with some concepts that could really breathe life into the text. I’d illustrate some of the subjects directly, while lampooning and subvert others. While some of the anecdotes lent themselves naturally to visualization, others would need a more oblique treatment. Complicating things further, this needed to be family friendly illustrations for a book that would be on the racks at Barnes and Noble and Target stores, and this being a book about Rock and Roll meant some of the subject matter was less than squeaky clean. So I’d need to find clever ways to make debauchery seem wholesome.
I Don’t Do Portraits. Or Wait… Do I?
Having grown into illustration somewhat late in my career, I’ve had to build up my confidence project by project. I’d never really done much if any portraiture, but I wanted to mix up the illustrations a bit so there was a bit of variety to things. After all, this book was several hundred pages long and there was certainly variety in the content. So shouldn’t the illustrations reflect that variety? At any rate I was keen to give it a shot. One night I quickly dashed out an angular stab at Morrissey, full of all the sharp-chinned pomp you’d expect from Moz.
To my shock, it worked a lot better than I’d expected. And it was fun to do. So with that as kind of model, I made a couple more to round things out.
Mick, Moz, Jarvis, Father John Misty, and more. I had found a way to round out the universe of the book. It was also a huge help to soothe the encroaching burnout. We were nearing New Year’s Eve and I was running short on stamina and had a standing date with Anaheim (every year my wife and I ring in the new year at Disneyland) and I—no joke—finished the very last illo right before we hopped in the car to get out of town.
It was a beast of a project to take on but I managed to pull it off in the end. Some projects take a lot out of you but the best ones will make you feel like you “leveled up” while working on them and this was definitely one of those. Finishing this book made me feel like my still-young career as an illustrator might hold some viability after all.
I’m extremely grateful to Crispin Kott and Mike Katz for letting me take this ride with them. It was a deeply fulfilling project to get to be a part of and while there were plenty of nights working on it that I couldn’t see over the stack to the end of it, I can’t imagine my body of work without The Little Book of Rock And Roll Wisdom in the stack.