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Poster Artist Gary Grimshaw Dead at 67

Gary Grimshaw
GaryGrimshaw.com

Gary Grimshaw, the artist whose distinctive style was a key part of the mystique surrounding the MC5 and Detroit’s Grande Ballroom during the ’60s, has passed away at the age of 67.

“Heaven will be a little more psychedelic today,” Grimshaw’s friend, former Detroit concert promoter Gail Parenteau, told the Detroit News. Parenteau went on to describe Grimshaw “as brilliant a rock star as any of the legendary bands and events he imagined in his iconic poster art.”

Grimshaw was certainly more heavily involved in the music than many poster artists, particularly with the MC5, with whom he had a long personal connection stretching back to his childhood friendship with singer Rob Tyner. An early member of the White Panther activist party co-founded by the band’s manager, Grimshaw was also instrumental in developing the psychedelic aesthetic in Detroit — to an extent he didn’t discuss publicly for years. “Acid arrived in Detroit bigtime in late ’66, and it’s partly my fault — I had friends in California who had access to lots of LSD, and I did consulting work in the area of distribution,” Grimshaw recalled in a Mojo retrospective many years later. “I’m admitting a felony here, but back then it wasn’t about selling it so much as making sure that it got into the right hands. It was a righteous substance and reserved for righteous people. In the beginning, anyway.”

While the psychedelic era ultimately ended up being fairly brief, and the MC5 splintered in 1972, Grimshaw remained active until the end; as Tyner’s widow Becky told the Detroit News, “He gave a visual punch to the music scene, he used colors — he was the artist of a generation. But it wasn’t just limited to the ’60s or ’70s, he’d been doing things recently, too.”

In fact, Grimshaw ended up being more or less directly responsible for a late-period reunion featuring the surviving members of the MC5. Although the band hadn’t performed together since a 1992 memorial concert in honor of the recently deceased Tyner — and guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith had also passed away in the interim, succumbing to heart failure in 1994 — guitarist Wayne Kramer rounded up bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson in 2003 for an unlikely-seeming London concert (and subsequent tour) that could just as easily have been a lawsuit.

“The sequence of events is Rob Tyner’s widow, Rebecca Derminer, Gary Grimshaw, and [John Sinclair's ex-wife] Leni Sinclair licensed the MC5 trademark to Levi’s and they didn’t have a right to do that. And they sold out the MC5. Cheap. We naturally called Levi’s, and they realized they had made a terrible mistake,” Kramer told Harp in 2004. “And they knew that they couldn’t promote the vintage clothing line without the band’s permission, and let us know that the money they had given to Gary Grimshaw, they would have to take that money back from him. And we never wanted to do any harm to Gary, or anybody. And so we said, ‘Let us make you a counter-proposal. We think we have an idea that could turn a lemon into lemonade.’ We’ll get the surviving members back together; we’ll throw a special gig to make it a real event. We’ll do it in a small club in London. And it’ll be a free show — in the true spirit of the MC5. It won’t be a big music business event. It’ll be word of mouth. Let’s record it, and let’s film it, and you can pay for it. They said, ‘We think that’s a great idea.’”

According to the Detroit News obituary, Grimshaw had suffered “many medical challenges” in recent years, and his surviving family members are faced with serious medical expenses that will be offset by the proceeds of an upcoming benefit. The event, scheduled for March 22, will include an auction featuring items donated by an array of musicians, including Detroit native and former Grimshaw client Jack White.

The outpouring of support reflects Grimshaw’s lifelong dedication to his art. “There is a long history of artists making music the subject matter of their work,” Grimshaw told Mojo in 1997. “It’s difficult because you’re trying to make a picture of something that can’t be seen. But it’s even more difficult for musicians, because when they perform it dissipates into the air and is gone. Just to get to the point where they can make a record, it takes years of all this energy disappearing as soon as it’s made. Whereas everything a graphic artist does he can hold in his hands. That’s why serving the music has always seemed honorable to me.”

You can check out more of Mr. Grimshaw’s work at his official web site.

Next: See Other Rockers We've Lost in 2014

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