The Lost Art of the Arrow, Part I

October 4, 2010 § 1 Comment


"Houston" Dean Martin (Reprise, 1965)

The arrow used to have a much more prevalent role in the world, it seems to me. For one, it was used with abandon on record covers, especially in the 1960s. Often merely a subtle feature of the design of a sleeve, it nevertheless always seemed to impart an optimism, or something in that direction. Things were simpler then, more innocent, and elements like exclamation points (“Powerful Percussion!” “Dramatic Stereo!”) and arrows served to convey excitement and dynamism. People were sending rockets into space, after all, and throwing off the constraints of the previous decade of conformity. Things were happening.

It goes without saying that the arrow wasn’t limited to graphic design in print; signs – at least throughout the United States, anyway – used them liberally and often pretty creatively. They sometimes still do, certainly, but not with the same frequency or flair. Often as part of a sign an arrow will serve a clearly practical purpose: directing people towards an entrance, or around a corner or what have you. But many times they are there just to jazz the whole thing up. Which they do, for me. I particularly like their use in a lot of the old liquor-store signs that one still sometimes sees.

This cover strikes me as a particularly creative use of the arrow, both front and rear. It’s also a good example of artwork that just wouldn’t have the same impact if reduced to cd size – or, in the case of the great chart on the back, even be able to catch your eye before purchase, as it would probably have to be included in some sort of booklet. Then to have to fold it out, etc…. You might as well just forget about it as far as I’m concerned. But then again, that’s assuming it was part of a cd, and even those are dying now, leaving music consumers with downloads that often come with little or no art. It seems like people are still trying to figure that whole aspect out, though, and perhaps there will be some creative developments in that direction that will end up being a pleasant surprise.

Houston, Texas vs. Dean Martin (please click to read)

I had no idea when I came across it or even when I decided to scan it for this project, but this cover also happens to have been designed by one of the famous art directors of the era, Ed Thrasher. When Thrasher passed away in 2006, the New York Times said he had “helped define the look of rock.” From the L.A. area, he had started as an assistant at Capitol in 1957, becoming art director at Warner Brothers in 1964. While there he had a hand in everything from Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” to albums by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and the Grateful Dead. Not to mention many collaborations with Frank Sinatra. Joe Smith, former head of Warner Brothers, once said, “Ed had the talent for getting along with the talent, especially with a Frank Sinatra, who could get very cranky. With Ed, Frank was a pussycat.”

Thrasher also was a photographer, and it turns out he not only art-directed, but also shot the cover photo for Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.”

Ed Thrasher Strikes Again

Coincidentally enough, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” was written by Lee Hazlewood, who also wrote the title song to “Houston.” I’m sure some people reading this know who Hazlewood was, but many are likely unfamiliar with him. Hazlewood was a somewhat eccentric cult figure who made his mark writing and producing songs for other artists, but also released his own albums. He grew up in Oklahoma and near Beaumont in east Texas, not all that far from Houston, and near the end of his life the Houston Press did a story on him which described him as a “renaissance cowboy” who inspired a generation of songwriters: “Stitch the talents of Serge Gainsbourg, [legendary eccentric ’60s British recording engineer] Joe Meek, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen into a cowboy, and you’d have an approximation of this singer/songwriter/producer, whose work, wide as the prairie sky, always howled ‘America’ — even when it was recorded in Sweden.”

His wry, deadpan lyrical sensibility was, the piece explains, linked to his upbringing. “His style was born, he says, very early, mostly as a defense mechanism. ‘You had to be very careful in the South, where I grew up, if you were the least bit creative,’ he recalled. ‘Because, you know, you might just be a sissy. You didn’t write about the beautiful rain falling on the morning flowers. You wrote about falling off the back of a wagon. Funny, nothing ever serious — so the girls thought you were cute and the boys thought you were clever’.”

Hazlewood worked with Nancy Sinatra on many classic tracks, some of which she sang on her own, and some of which they famously performed as duets. It was an inspired pairing. Here is a great example, and while this particular song wasn’t actually written by Hazlewood, he did produce it, and everything about this clip is just too good not to share here.

“Look out, Jackson-town”

Later in life Hazlewood was covered or cited as an influence by a host of younger indie acts, from Beck to Sonic Youth to Nick Cave, Tindersticks, Luna, Pulp…it’s a long list. Earlier in his career he had been personally thanked by Elvis Presley as having been someone who first helped to popularize the latter’s music, when Hazlewood was a radio dj in Arizona in the ’50s. That’s quite a way to span rock history.

One could write an entire book on the man – his association with the Sinatras, his 1950s experiments with echo with twangy guitarist Duane Eddy, his work with Phil Spector (who apparently studied Hazlewood’s use of reverb when he was honing his “Wall of Sound”), his role in the genesis of Gram Parsons’ career, his eccentric solo albums and later wanderings, etc., etc. I am, however, trying to keep this entry relatively “short.” But there is a nice story about how, after Cave had asked Hazlewood to appear at the Meltdown festival at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1999, the singer’s performance was enthusiastically received by the younger crowd, prompting him to ask as he finished: “Really! Guys!, I’m seventy years old. Where were you back when I needed you?” Someone from the crowd then shouted back, “We weren’t born yet, Lee.” As Hazlewood continues: “And I go ‘Yeah, you got that right, I’m sorry, you’re all twenty-eight years old, I know that, you weren’t born yet.’ And I thought, now that gave me chills, and nothing gives me chills, but that did.” (http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/personalities/whos_lee_hazlewood.php)

Hazlewood died in 2007. His last album, “Cake or Death,” had been released the year before. His obituary in the London newspaper the Independent quoted him as having said, “I’ve been around long enough now. I’ve lived a pretty interesting life – not too much sadness, a lot of happiness, lots of fun. And I didn’t do much of anything I didn’t want to do.”

Hazlewood and Dean Martin passed away at the same age, 78. I don’t know a lot about Martin, but sense that while he may have said something similar about the “lots of fun,” it doesn’t seem like he would have been able to make the same claim about the sadness. His son was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1987 while on a training mission with the California Air National Guard, and many say Martin never really recovered. (He would pass away on Christmas morning, 1995.) He was always reportedly possessed of something of a solitary personality anyway, and as he grew older he became increasingly reclusive and disengaged. His second wife Jeanne once told an interviewer, as reported in Nick Tosches’ biography Dino, “He’d come home. I’d say, ‘What happened today?’ He’d say, ‘Nothing’. I’d look at the news and there would be the King and Queen of England visiting the set and meeting Dean Martin. It just simply didn’t faze him. No one, nothing impressed him deeply.” The year after his son died, Martin was part of a Rat Pack reunion tour when Sinatra, upset that Dino didn’t want to head out on the town for the night, dumped a plate of spaghetti over his head. Martin immediately quit the tour and after that the two rarely spoke. What a ridiculous-sounding incident, but especially given the timing in connection with his son’s death, it strikes me as probably the last thing he needed, and in a small way kind of heartbreaking.

Philip French of the Observer in the UK summed up the singer this way: “Martin was a complex figure, at once intimate and detached, gregarious and solitary, comical and sad, and he ended up a recluse.” French also calls the aforementioned Dino one of the best star biographies; I had not been aware of the book, but now want to read it. He mentions that Scorsese has been trying to turn it into a film as well. You can find it on Amazon here: Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams

Part of Martin’s persona during his TV career was appearing to be the worse for drink, and opinions vary as to how much of that was acting (probably most) and how much was at all real. Here he is lip-synching the song “Houston” while at least coming off as a bit out of it. Watching it reminds one a little of how, as with what I was saying about the use of the arrow, things just seemed simpler then. I have only the vaguest of memories of these sorts of TV shows, but they are good ones. People were just having fun; it wasn’t that serious.

I have a lot of covers I like in which arrows figure prominently, so there will definitely be at least a Part II at some point. (And maybe one reason I am partial to the symbol is that I’ve always just liked the word. I grew up near a road called Arrow Highway, which I even appropriated as a name for one of my musical projects.) To close for now, though, I wanted to pass along a comment I came across on Youtube that might be a good way to kind of sum things up. The person was talking about having seen Lee Hazlewood at the Meltdown festival mentioned above. She writes, “I was blessed to see Lee’s London concert in 1999…. Hell, I was blessed to have ever heard of Lee Hazlewood.”

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§ One Response to The Lost Art of the Arrow, Part I

  • Simone White says:

    The G on Dexter Gordon’s album GO always looks like an arrow to me but it could also just be a gung-ho G.

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