I Work in Chaos: The Art of Lou Beach
If he’s most often described as a collage artist, it’s perhaps because Lou Beach, over the course of a long and productive career, has created a body of work that is difficult to sum up any other way. You can’t bottom-line him; and describing him by naming his medium of choice sidesteps the obstacle of categorizing his prolific output in other, more specifically descriptive ways.
The obstacle is a significant one: in terms of composition, color, iconography, mood and motif, Beach’s work spans a spectrum about as broad as life itself. By turns elegant, funny, uncanny, startling, unsettling, and beautiful, his illustrations cover so much territory that it’s a wonder there is anything recognizable in his style.
And yet there is: whether bright and poppy, or dark and surreal, there is something signature and unmistakable in his approach. His compositions both support and benefit from the layers of meaning he packs into juxtapositions – like a family grouped on a suburban lawn with pill bottles where their heads should be, or a mournful face cribbed from Hieronymus Bosch atop a body whose arms expertly cradle an electric guitar. Beach’s recent foray into writing -- with the book 420 Characters -- has an oddly similar quality of tidy and effortless complexity, only with language rather than image as his weapon of choice.
I first encountered Beach’s work in my teens, on the cover of the American release of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s self-titled debut. His smiling kimono-clad woman, wearing oversized sunglasses, with a medusa-like crown of stripped wires where her hair should be, became an instant favorite for reasons I didn’t examine. That this image was the perfect summation of YMO’s skillful tweaking of Western preconceptions about Japanese culture escaped me at the time; or rather, it seemed so inevitable and so perfectly expressed as to render the skill and talent behind it invisible, as natural as breathing.
Mr. Beach was kind enough to respond to my questions over email, and even his answers have a certain Lou-Beach-ness about them: unpredictable, witty, and sometimes abrupt.
Early work: Target - Target (A&M, 1976) and Bazuka - Bazuka (A&M, 1975). Cover art by Lou Beach.
LKH: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship that got you started designing album covers? It sounds as though it was initially something you drifted into through a friend.
LB: Yes. When I first lived in LA in the late 60s, I had a friend with whom I delivered furniture. He was the cousin of my then-girlfriend. When I returned to LA from living in Boston for several years, he had become a lawyer and creative marketing guy at A&M Records, and he asked me to illustrate a cover for a rock group. It was either Bazuka or Target…remember them?
LKH: I had to look those up. Had you heard of either band, or heard their music?
LKH: What was the art direction like, working on those early covers in the 1970s? Was it restrictive at all, or was there guidance, or were you just kind of left to your own devices?
LB: I don’t recall a lot of art direction back then. It was a very different scene, much looser and more fun than what it became later, in the late 80s and 90s when a corporate mindset took over.
Weather Report - Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977) and The Neville Brothers - Fiyo On The Bayou (A&M, 1981).
Cover art by Lou Beach.
LKH: I've been surprised since writing for Cover Our Tracks how many musicians don't think about their album covers much. And then there are those who have very specific ideas and really want them carried out a certain way. Have you experienced either of those things in your album cover work?
LB: Generally, my interactions with the musicians was limited…the art department was my main contact, though I’d meet some of the acts, go to a recording session or gig. Joe Zawinul was rather particular and I almost refused to make changes to the Heavy Weather cover that he insisted on - I didn’t want my ‘art’ to be messed with. I was new to the game and it took some reflection to realize that I was a hired gun, that it wasn’t “Lou Beach with music by Weather Report.”
LKH: What's your process like? How do you settle on the right image and the right combination of images?
LB: Well, if we’re strictly speaking of album covers, then the album title or a song title will spark ideas and then I’d gather appropriated images and improvise, hoping that something worthwhile would emerge.
LKH: Are you happier with more direction -- more restrictions -- or more freedom?
LB: I’m not a fan of outside restrictions…I provide my own.
Proposed album cover artwork for The Police's Ghost in the Machine by Lou Beach.
LKH: The cover for The Police's Ghost in the Machine is a personal favorite of mine because it's a little disturbing -- there's sort of a ransom note quality about their eyes being cut out. I notice that little edge of something uncanny or jarring here and there in your work; do you think of that as something deliberate in your style?
LB: It’s a product of my mind, forged by an Eastern European background and Ernie Kovacs and the Marx Brothers, a love of the Surrealists and maybe drugs.
LKH: The Neville Brothers's Fiyo on the Bayou is another really perfect one. The scene has kind of a restful vibe despite being an image of a crocodile on fire. Do you remember how that image came to mind?
LB: Kind of a no-brainer. ‘Fiyo’ of course is fire, and thinking about swamp images, critters…it sort of created itself. No crocodiles were injured in the production of that artwork.
Various Artists - No Wave (A&M, 1978) and Sad Café - Misplaced Ideals (A&M, 1978).
Cover art by Lou Beach.
LKH: Some of your album covers from the late 70s seem to really encapsulate what came to be seen as an 80s "look," despite being earlier than that. I'm thinking of a compilation called No Wave that featured some tracks by The Police and Joe Jackson and others -- it's this bright neon and leopard-skin in the background and a new wave looking guy surfing on an ironing board. Or this cover for Sad Café’s Misplaced Ideals. Do you think your style was influential, or ahead of its time, or was that look already floating around and we just don't think of it that way?
LB: Hmm. I dunno, I was just doing what I was doing at the time. No Wave was done overnight. I got a call from A&M asking for a cover featuring a punk on a surfboard. I didn’t have a surfboard, so I dressed my then-wife in my leopard-skin pajama top (which I wore as a regular shirt), my alligator shoes and had her stand on an ironing board and added some xeroxed wave photos. As I said, things were much looser then! Sad Café is sort of cheesy.
Collages by Lou Beach: (Left) The Gamble, (top right) World of Men A and
(bottom right) Poltroons on Parade (Pigeon! Pigeon! Pigeon!)
LKH: I want to ask about your fine art work as well. Illustrators often mention how important problem solving is to their approach, but that element is sort of missing in fine art, isn't it? Or is it all just a matter of communicating ideas with images? Is there an important distinction, in your mind, between your approach to a creating a fine art piece versus an illustration?
LB: Problem solving is a great part of picture making. The distinction between illustration and my personal work is in the genesis of the problem to be cracked. In the commercial work, the problem to be solved is presented by the client. In personal work, I create the problem. In fact, just creating the problem is problematic. Art is a deep dark hole with a thin and unraveling rope the only means of returning to the “real” world. I work in chaos.
LKH: You've produced so much work over your career that this may be a silly question, but is there a work you think of as a particular favorite? Or any that you would point to as career high points for one reason or another?
LB: My very first cover, for Ewen MacColl and Peggy Seeger for their 1973 album, At the Present Moment on the nascent Rounder Records; their ‘office’ was a communal kitchen in Cambridge. I was offered $35, but bargained it up to $50. Always ask for more. Heavy Weather brought the most recognition, was nominated for a GRAMMY for artwork. Fiyou because I loved the music and got to meet the Nevilles.
LKH: What advice would you give to artists just getting started today?
LB: Get a law degree.
Commercial Illustration by Lou Beach (from left): Art + Auction, McGraw-Hill, Houghton-Mifflin and Wired
LKH: You've mentioned elsewhere that you worked various jobs before settling into your illustration career -- like, that you ran a punch press and drove a forklift, that you were a church custodian. Would you talk a little bit about that era? I love hearing about people's early jobs and I'm wondering if you have any really great stories.
LB: I got a job in the only remaining machine shop in Hollywood. This was the late 1960s. The first day, the first HOUR, I managed to drive a rivet through my fingernail and into my finger. Things got better. I began making art around that time - assemblages fashioned in wooden drawers that I brought home from the machine shop, which was called Glide King - it produced hardware that allowed drawers to open easily. I got to meet Muddy Waters while I was the sexton (janitor) at the famous Arlington St. Church in Boston - an absolute thrill for this blues fan. I’d found a cane on the church grounds and Muddy had recently been in an accident and needed a cane. I presented my find and Muddy had me carve my name into it! One day, on a self-dare, I climbed into the church steeple (where I went weekly to wind the Civil War era clock), all the way to the very top where there was a window that could be opened. I went through it to step onto a quite narrow ledge that circled the steeple and made myself walk all the way around. Phew. When I got back down to the church office, the police were there - they’d been alerted to a jumper - a suicide call.
LKH: I've read that you only took one art class -- in high school -- and I wasn't quite sure whether that was meant literally. But assuming it was, do you think more formal training would've changed you as an artist?
LB: Yes, I only had one semester of art, taught by a very gifted draftsman who didn’t care for my drawings of blue hands and oddly colored polar bears. I was also a smartass and he was strict, so it wasn’t a good fit. No doubt formal training would have changed me, perhaps even for the better, but I have no regrets. A lot of what I see coming out of art schools is crap.
LKH: 420 Characters is such an impressive book. Each tiny story is so well-crafted, and packed with things that are difficult to pull off even in entire book-length works: unexpected twists, dialogue, character dynamics, description, poetic meter. Can you talk about how it came about? I know the background was that you began posting them as Facebook status updates that went right to the character limit, but there's got to be more to it than that?
LB: Yeah, those stories were just an amusement, a personal exercise to see if I could actually create a narrative within very tight constraints. I wrote them pretty much daily and would throw them on Facebook without real editing beyond making sure there were exactly 420 characters. People seemed to like them and after I’d gathered a good number of them, rock writer Ed Ward asked if I’d like to be introduced to his literary agent and I said ‘Sure’ and within a few weeks we had a contract with Houghton-Mifflin. It was a perfect moment and I was very lucky - that film about Facebook had just come out - The Social Network - and there was a buzz about social media.
LKH: You've got Ian McShane, Jeff Bridges, and Dave Alvin reading your stories on the book website -- such great voices. How did that collaboration come about?
LB: Well, it was less a collaboration than just old pals doing me a solid. I asked and they came through. McShane was particularly great - he just kept reading them, about 80 I think. He’d been waylaid for months with some medical issue and hadn’t done any acting so he was ready to rip through these little stories - and he did - we had a good time.
LKH: Are you working on anything now you're excited about?
LB: Got some shows coming up in 2018, so creating work for those. You know I’ve only been working on handmade collages again since 2009, so I’m sort of an emerging artist (at 70!) and exploring and experimenting and developing. Writing, too.
LKH: And I almost forgot to ask this: Do you listen to music much? I'd love to know, because I'm asking everyone this right now, what's your sound system like? Vinyl or MP3s, or a streaming audio service like Pandora, or some combination of formats? Or do you just listen to the radio, or what?
LB: I do listen, mostly when I’m in the studio. I have a nice Denon turntable in another part of the house near a wall of vinyl, but I need a new cartridge. I have one of those USB turntables in case of an emergency. I also have many, many CDs and even some tapes leftover from the days when I’d make mixtapes. I don’t use streaming services, though I must admit to being really lazy and using YouTube, played through some meh Boston speakers connected to the iMac. I also run CDs through that system. I have a very nice older Yamaha deck that is waiting for repair as well. And I sing.
LKH: Thank you so much again for taking the time to respond to this!! We at Cover Our Tracks are big fans of your work!
LB: Thank you, Kris. It’s been fun walking myself around in the past.
For more of Lou Beach's work, see the gallery below: