Celebrated art director and adman Mike Salisbury claims he fought communism with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll

By Mary Reinholz

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity, but they’ve always worked for me.”

— Hunter S. Thompson

Celebrated art director  and adman Mike Salisbury claims he fought communism with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll Photo by Ted Soqui

Celebrated art director and adman Mike Salisbury claims he fought communism with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll
Photo by Ted Soqui

When Mike Salisbury was art director at Rolling Stone and known to colleagues as Mad Dog, he encountered famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in a darkened North Beach theater where Bob Marley was to perform.

Thompson happened to be sitting in front of Salisbury and offered him a tab of LSD with a line print in blue of Mr. Natural.

“Take it, Mad Dog,” Thompson said, according to an entry in Salisbury’s blog, One Hell of an Eye, posted a few years after Thompson’s death in 2009 and reposted recently on Facebook.

Salisbury, who has lived just off the Venice boardwalk for the past 17 years, told me he kept Thompson’s gift for years until it “melted” in his wallet.

“I never dropped that acid,” Salisbury explained in his blog. “I never actually dropped any. A Mad Dog needs no help. And the tab was my seal of Hunter’s approval.”

‘Mr. Pop Culture’

Not much has curbed Salisbury’s stride since that long-ago time when he redesigned Rolling Stone and, before that, West magazine, the Los Angeles Times’ defunct but still widely admired Sunday supplement that supported the New Journalism of the era. (Full disclosure: This writer was on retainer for West for a few years but barely knew Salisbury, then or now.)

After West folded in 1972, Salisbury began his brief tenure at Rolling Stone. He got an offer from Francis Ford Coppola that he couldn’t refuse and art directed his ill-fated City of San Francisco magazine. From there, he provided scenes and art material (including Col. Kurtz’s dossier) for Coppola’s dark Vietnam War epic, “Apocalypse Now,” and created the iconic image of Michael Jackson in a tux with glowing white socks and a single white glove for the nascent King of Pop’s 1979 “Off the Wall” album.

Salisbury, who studied advertising design at Chouinard Art Institute and early in his career worked at both Playboy and Surfer Magazine, also became known as a prolific adman and branding machine.

In his overstuffed C.V., Salisbury lays claim to stamping his imprint on more than 300 films, among them “Jurassic Park” (he created the franchise logo), “Aliens,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Moulin Rouge.” He coined the name of Levi’s 501 jeans and has crafted brand identities for numerous other products, ranging from Triumph motorcycle ads to the Hasbro smile logo.

Along the way, Salisbury has been called a genius by his admirers and compared to Hitler by detractors for creating the notorious Smokin’ Joe Camel cartoon for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company’s ad campaign in 1987.

No stranger to controversy, Salisbury is also the same self-styled biking/surfing bad boy of California design who collaborated (with writer Terry Abrahamson) on the outrageously bawdy Hustler magazine parody of a Campari ad in which a fictional Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority admits to having had his first sexual experience with his mother in an outhouse. (“We were drunk off our God-fearing asses on Campari.”)

As recounted in the film “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” that imaginary confession of the Protestant minister resulted in years of legal turmoil for porn king Larry Flynt until his eventual vindication before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988.

“With a writer, I created the ad parody that got Flynt before the Supreme Court and saved the Constitution,”  boasted Salisbury during a 2000 interview with Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts in downtown Manhattan and an ardent Salisbury fan.

A year earlier, Salisbury published a 156-page paperback with numerous pictures called “An Art Director Confesses: I Sold Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” In it, he admits to having been rejected by the U.S. Naval Academy, kicked out of architecture school and fired “from one of the biggest ad agencies in the country.”

Despite such setbacks, the soon-to-be hotshot purveyor of cool was apparently undaunted. He claims his work has contributed “over $200 billion to the American GNP — $100 billion alone just from the Levi’s 501 brand name I created.”

No one can accuse him of lacking self-esteem.

Salisbury’s latest oeuvre includes three television programs in development at his company, Mike Salisbury LLC, which operates out of his three-story house overlooking the Pacific. One of them, called “Mr. Pop Culture,” began as a documentary about his work and its impact on society. Salisbury hopes to turn it into a TV series, based on the grandiose thesis that he helped end the Cold War with his ubiquitous marketing campaigns.

The teaser shows his illuminated head against a black backdrop solemnly stating: “My name is Mike Salisbury, and I fought communism with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.” The Beatles’ song “Revolution” erupts. Printed words emerge amid images of pop eminences like Andy Warhol and Elvis Presley, informing viewers that they will be looking at “the true story about the birth of pop culture and the CIA operative who engineered it.”

Say what?

Asked on the telephone if this was a joke, Salisbury replied, “No, it’s true.” He cited Niall Ferguson, the Scottish neo-conservative history professor at Harvard, who has said that oppressed proles behind the “Iron Curtain” had craved jeans and Coca-Cola — the kind of merch Salisbury has turned into household names for years.

OK, but, ahem, was he ever a CIA operative?

Salisbury said something I could barely hear during his call to my New York home office, and then abruptly signed off, later sending me an email quoting celebrities such as French Marxist Régis Debray, a comrade of Che Guevera, who has said there is “more power in jeans and rock ’n’ roll than the entire Red Army.”

Later I asked a few of Salisbury’s old associates at West magazine if they ever considered him a government agent back in the 1960s and ’70s, when there seemed to be a lot of hipster moles around, mostly from the FBI, infiltrating radical groups like the Black Panthers.

“CIA operative? Mike? Doesn’t sound possible unless it’s part of a musical comedy,” quipped one.

Another former colleague noted that Salisbury, a peripatetic Navy brat in his youth and an avid reader of Mad Magazine, often put together tongue-in-cheek graphics to accompany articles.

“West magazine’s content was consistently witty and often hilarious — starting with funny writers who gave it a hip satirical style that Mike’s designs enhanced,” said novelist Umberto Tosi, who worked with Salisbury at both West and Coppola’s City Magazine.

But Salisbury seems to be dead serious in his belief that communism didn’t stand a chance when a new generation of Reds sought the pleasures of American capitalism.

“People over there wanted to live like us and they wanted to be like us. Like California, really,” he told writer Joe Donnelly in a recent issue of The Surfer’s Journal.

Meanwhile, Salisbury’s “Mr. Pop Culture” trailer is being used as a teaching tool by an adjunct professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where Salisbury is an occasional guest speaker.

“I include it in all my classes on design,” said Pasadena designer Michael Dooley, who also references his 1996 interview with Salisbury in Print Magazine on his Joe Camel campaign during class discussions on ethics.

Dooley added: “I think he means to be playful.”

Does he think that Salisbury was once a CIA operative?

“I haven’t asked him about it. I guess we’ll have to wait for the program to air,” Dooley responded during an exchange of emails.

Reminded that he uses Salisbury’s unsubstantiated trailer for students in his classes at both Art Center and Loyola Marymount University, Dooley replied, “Yup. I don’t see his supposed role as a CIA agent as significant to graphic design history.”

Jobs and Shoes

Salisbury is clearly a talented man whose Zelig-like career took off after he left a prominent Los Angeles advertising agency to reshape the look of West magazine. He was tapped for the job in 1967 by Jim Bellows, the late legendary editor who came to the Los Angeles Times from the New York Herald Tribune, where he had nurtured Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe.

Before Salisbury’s arrival, West debuted in 1966 under the leadership of founding Editor Marshall Lumsden, who brought in top writers like Ray Bradbury, William Saroyan and Carolyn See. But it was Salisbury who gave the magazine’s graphics a cutting edge within a conservative metropolitan daily that the liberal Bellows called “the velvet coffin.”

“Everyone said not to go, as the paper was very conservative at the time,” Salisbury said. “But I saw it as an opportunity to be seen by about two million people here and more around the world as I shipped Wests to all the major communication outlets. People got to see things about the West they never were aware of.”

His high-concept covers sharply separated West from the daily paper with bold images, such as a birthday candle on a wedge of Swiss cheese for Mickey Mouse’s birthday and the CBS eye shedding a tear when Ed Sullivan left the show. Other covers showed local pop iconography, like swimming pools in the shape of pianos or guitars. One cover design for a story on a killer drug epidemic had a skull with fulsome red lips and the words: “Smack! Heroin’s kiss of death.”

Dooley regards Salisbury as one of California’s most important designers and says so in his classes: “I use Mike as a prime example — along with Push Pin Studios and psychedelic poster artists — of what I call ‘American pre-Postmodern.’”

Salisbury’s detractors include lensman D. Gorton, a former White House photographer for The New York Times who freelanced for West after arriving in Los Angeles from Mississippi, where he had been active in the early civil rights movement.

“I have an abiding distaste for the flash that is attached to guys like Mike,” Gorton said. “He was not as inventive as he and his admirers pretend.”

Gorton said that he got few assignments from Salisbury. “He was utterly uninterested in the sorts of things that I wanted to cover: the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, women’s liberation. The work that he pursued, in my opinion, was vacuous, shallow and derivative — just perfect for the world of advertising and ‘branding’ that he would enter.”

Writer Lawrence S. Dietz, who once worked for New York Magazine, had a completely different experience with young Salisbury. He said the mercurial art director was receptive to his pitch for a West spread on “Raymond Chandler’s L.A.”

“Mike loved it,” he said, adding that Salisbury “assigned a photographer who went cruising with me. I wrote an essay. The photos ran with Chandler’s words as captions.”

Years later, Dietz said, screenwriter Robert Towne told a local publication that the West feature got him interested in Los Angeles history and led to his writing the esteemed 1974 film noir classic, “Chinatown,” with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. “I had about 30 seconds of puffed chest and swelled head,” Dietz recalled. “Then I read his last sentence, which was that the text of the West piece was pretty lousy, but the photos were great.”

Salisbury’s own photos — including those of George Harrison, Lyle Lovett, Tina Turner, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans — were on display earlier this year at the “Revolutions 2” exhibition at the Forest Lawn museum in Glendale, where Michael Jackson’s body is entombed.
The exhibition, focusing on art tied to the music industry and involving about 40 other artists (including Venice’s Guy Webster), filled three studios, according to Museum Director Joan Adan, the show’s curator.

Despite Salisbury’s reputation as a merry visual prankster, he wasn’t amused when I mentioned British author Evelyn Waugh’s devastating takedown of a Forest Lawn-like cemetery called Whispering Glades, depicting it as a travesty of English rural life in thrall to Hollywood values in his 1948 satiric novel, “The Loved One.”

“It’s a replication but it’s hardly a travesty, and I think they did a good job,” he said of the famous cemetery, later noting that he believes almost all of Southern California architecture and landscaping is “derivative of something else. Even Frank Lloyd Wright modeled his work here after Mayan architecture. Forest Lawn is just bigger.”

Salisbury recalled photographing Bill Cosby at Forest Lawn for a magazine feature “on famous people’s favorite places” during the embattled comic’s younger days.

“My bearded cousin and I picked up Bill in my VW van and drove to Forest Lawn to take the picture of Cosby on a bench under a tree reading the paper with his shoes off at eventide. Later Cosby told my cousin he thought us hippies were going to kidnap him,” he said.

Although Salisbury has assumed many roles over the years, he made it plain that he is not now nor has he ever been a hippie despite his attending the first love-in and other seminal events from the now nearly vanished counterculture.

“I had jobs and shoes,” he said.

He also sent me a list of subjects that he didn’t want to discuss — such as anything “negative” about Forest Lawn — in our next phone conversation.

Nothing Personal

The rebel who came of age in the revolutionary 1960s appears to have become more cautious in his golden years. He’s 73 now and says he no longer surfs or keeps motorcycles at his beach house. He shares it with a female companion identified only as Willard. He has three “very successful” adult children and dismissed questions about his two divorces as “irrelevant.”

After I asked him just two questions about his “Mr. Pop Culture” project, he seemed to become agitated and said in emails that he wanted to review all quotes I would attribute to him.

When I declined to do so, he wrote my editor asking that all references to him regarding the Forest Lawn “Revolution 2” exhibition be deleted — “unless she uses what I said, which is that the art of ‘Revolutions 2’ is the art of the largest, most prolific and free generation in this country and what that era did was bring down the Berlin Wall.”

Chill, Mad Dog. I don’t recall you saying anything remotely like that to me.

This story also appears in the Pasadena Weekly, a sister publication of The Argonaut.