Behind The Art Behind The Music | Ernie Cefalu
It’s one of those rare days in Los Angeles. Rare not only because it’s July and the temps are just right, but rare because I’ve just spent the day discussing rock history, album covers, anecdotes about rock icons, and art with a man who is at the center of these topics; Ernie Cefalu. And what a day it’s been! I’ve been transported back to the Haight Ashbury’s summer of love, ridden through time with notables such as Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Jefferson Airplane, and The Rolling Stones, rode the wave of the 80’s music industry’s decline, to arrive back in the present.
OK, I have to grab my thoughts by their lapels and reel them back in. I don’t really want to, and in a way, things might not ever be the same. But let’s start back at the beginning. On July 14th, I was lucky enough to learn about Revolutions 2: The Art Of Music at The Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale, a topic very close to my rock and roll heart; an exhibition of music-related art with some very key pieces. Now, I have to say at the outset of this article, the exhibition only has eight days left on it’s run, and if you love the art of music and you don’t hop in your car and speed over to this show, then you may just have to turn in your rock and roll membership card. You can read about it in my prior post, but I can’t emphasize enough, go! Don’t make me get all preachy about how lucky you are to live in Los Angeles, where you CAN see this kind of show.
So back on topic. One of the artists, whose work is featured at Revolutions 2, is none other than Ernie Cefalu. You may be forgiven for not knowing Ernie’s name, but you do know of the work he’s so closely associated with. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that millions of people know of his legacy. His company, Pacific Eye and Ear created such works as Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, Welcome To My Nightmare, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and of course the most iconic image in all of rock music’s history, The Rolling Stones Tongue. Yes, you read correctly…. Ernie Cefalu is the creative genius behind The Stones’ Tongue. Very heady stuff indeed, but that’s just one of his creations.
Ernie was kind enough to invite me down to his place, to discuss the historic events surrounding this art, and to see some of these treasures in-person. Even his house is cool; it has 1/2 in the address. An address befitting a real artist.
What was to have been a story on the creation of the Stones tongue turned into a four-hour trip through the past, and I don’t mean darkly. I have enough notes for a series on Ernie; this man could keep a writer busy for months, a prospect I find most appealing after playing witness to the man’s warmth, wit, and ability to draw you in to his story, as though you were there yourself. In the true sense of the word “artist”, Ernie paints a picture you can see in your mind. I’ve met storytellers before, but none with this kind of alacrity.
So without further delay, here’s what Mr. Cefalu had to say:
Ernie tell our readers about the role of the creative director.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I’m not that talented, I just surrounded myself with really talented people. For the role of the Creative Director, I’ll use the analogy of the role of the coach of a football team where all the players are messed up and the gun goes off and everybody runs in different directions. That’s the role of creative director. He’s like the coach. He holds it together.
What I was able to do was to surround myself with guys who were really talented like Drew Struzan, Bill Garland, Carl Ramsey, Joe Garnet and Ingrid Haenke. I was really a designer that became an art director. I started out as an illustrator but then I realized that it wasn’t my strong suit. I could use it to get by, but what I was really strongest in was concept. So the concept, the idea, it has to start with the idea. I was really good at that; it would just come to me just like that (snaps fingers). It’s still does. The concept is the easiest part, yet that’s the hardest part to get right. A creative director is about directing other art directors and designers and basically giving them the idea.
I never wanted to do just one thing, because when you do, people want to put you into that one thing and pigeonhole you. And then you’ve got to fight to break out of it.
So let’s talk about one of your famous album covers; Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
For that, I went to meet with the band and I end up getting my own private concert. They were rehearsing their show in Beverly Hills; they had rented this big mansion with a ballroom. I walk in and pyrotechnics are going off, and the band is slamming, and I’m sitting there; just them and me with this full-blown concert! It was crazy… And then I talk with them, come back to my studio and sit in a brainstorming session with my designers and illustrators and say, “okay here’s what I was thinking about this” and that’s how they defined Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.
So what was it that you were thinking? What was your idea that they translated into what we now know as the cover?
When I was in fifth grade in Holy Communion my aunt gave me two pictures. English paintings of a good man and an evil man both at the split second of their death. That was kind of the way that Ozzie and Geezer and those guys explained it to me; “Like when it’s at that second, when it’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, God dammit!” So telling that to Drew and showing him these two pictures, these two illustrations there were paintings that were done in The 1800s,that kind of had a look like Currier and Ives. That was the idea.
That’s Drew’s interpretation with the bed, and the snakes, the 666, and all the relatives turning demonic, it’s all reds and oranges. The back cover being the good man, the peaceful man at the split second of his death, in the over arching spirit, and the lions sleeping at the foot of the bed and all the relatives are angelic. The front and back are opposites. And when the band saw it…
And in England we actually did a photo shoot with them. In America it’s just a front and back cover. In England it was a gatefold album. The photo shoot was a shot of them looking like they were naked from the waist up, in these kind of angelic ghostlike poses. We superimposed that image over this four-poster bed that they had at this estate, it was the perfect bed. So in England they had that inside spread.
So back to your first question, this in my opinion is what the creative director does, kind of gives that idea. The creative process is just that. Anybody who will tell you “oh look at that I did this all by myself”, they’re not being honest. It’s not true. They’re influenced by something or somebody and are just part of the process that happens.
I always felt our stuff was better than anybody else’s was because we did that. We shared ideas, we took ideas and we made them better, constantly pushing each other. So surrounding myself with people that were much better than I was the best thing that I could’ve ever done because it forced me to be better than them. I had to be better. If I was going to be the one to lead the charge I had to know where I was going, what I was doing, and convince them that I knew enough so they would follow me.
Was being a creative director more difficult back then than it is today?
It was easier back then. Because today, creative directors have to deal with marketing people and marketing people try to analyze everything. They bring in analytics and all of these statistics and you become so removed that you lose that emotional connection.
Were you paid a lot back then?
Back then we were getting $1500 per album. The most that anybody would pay back then was Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper would pay $5000 per album. Alice has stayed a good friend. I had a gallery showing in Minneapolis a couple of years ago and Alice came. It was the first time he was playing Minneapolis in 20 years, and as it turns out the theater he was playing at was two blocks from where my show was. So he came to my show and he cut the ribbon with the chainsaw
I’ve got about 350 pieces in my collection, all originals. I’ve got 70 original Drew Struzans. They had to have paid him a lot to come out of retirement to do the new Star Wars. He did all the Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Star Wars, E.T. and more. He’s done over 200 movie posters and about 30 album covers. He had only done one album cover before he started working with me. That was the Carole King Fantasy album. That illustration of her, that’s Drew’s.
How did Drew end up with you?
He just showed up one Saturday. He kept calling. Drew Struzan? Who is this guy? I’ve never heard of him. Not only do I not want to look at books, I don’t want to look at some amateur coming out of college. He was persistent and I agreed to see him on a Saturday. Just prior to that, one of my main guys, Joe Garnet had a medical problem and was gone. He was out. I was like, “Oh my god what am I going to do”?
I just got in this “Jefferson Airplane” package. Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, and Jorma Kaukonen had just done a solo album called Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun. They have give me the project to do but Joe Garnet was gone and I’m like thinking it’s going to be back on me to come up with an illustration or something. I’m thinking maybe I could do a logo, and then Drew shows up on a Saturday. I had forgotten that he was coming. He comes in and he’s just really straight looking guy. We’re all long hairs with beards like a bunch of hippies. And then he shows me his book; I took a look through it and thought, “wow, this is amazing”! When Drew came and showed me his portfolio I couldn’t believe it. It was like looking at Rembrandt’s portfolio.
Nobody would hire him; he was having real problems getting hired. He just gotten married, and he just had a kid, and he basically said “look I have got to have a job. I’ll work for you five days, and you pay me for four”, and I said “you know if you work for me for five days, you get paid for five days, it doesn’t work like that”. I hired him right on the spot.
So he shows up on Monday for work after we spent a few hours bouncing ideas around, and I told him I was working on this Jefferson Airplane project, Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun. It’s really funny because in college I was listening to all these bands, like the Jefferson Airplane and Grand Funk and now it’s a couple years later and I’m working with them.
Grace slick is in my studio as close as you and I are now and I can’t believe it! I mean, how weird to work with people that you admire, and never had a dream that you’d meet them, let alone work for them. It was a real amazing thing. And for me I was like a bigger fan than anything else, I just didn’t know what to say other than “I really like your music”, to which they responded enthusiastically with “well, we really love your art”.
Drew shows up on Monday with this charcoal sketch. He’s done this beautiful charcoal sketch of two figures with their skin flying off. I added it to the presentation and went up to San Francisco to meet with The Airplane. They are in a big house in Haight Ashbury, you know a big “Jefferson Airplane” kind of house… I guess it had been a bank, because it had this huge vault in the basement. They had all their instruments in the vault, and they kept their pot there too. We go down there and are getting high and I’m showing them the work and then they tell me that they have changed the name of the album, so I have to redo the work.
So we went over the rest of the work and I got really stoned with them; Jefferson Airplane had the best pot. I was so stoned; I couldn’t find the airport and ended up driving around lost in San Francisco for three hours. So I missed the flight back, caught the next one, and on Monday when Drew came in, we went over everything, and Drew came up with that illustration, that oil painting, the one that’s in your show.
Here’s the link to the original story about Revolutions 2: The Art Of Music. Get yourself over there as fast as you can, before Ozzy and Geezer come to steal your soul!