Back in December I got the chance to spend an afternoon with a guy who’s work was every bit as important to the development of my rock & roll universe as any musician. I was the kid with a marginal social life and an above average failure rate with girls who devouredevery liner note and credit on every album I owned. (Try that with a download). Time and again I’d run across Pacific Eye & Ear in the credits for the artwork and I’d imagine a cramped office a few blocks from Sunset Blvd. filled with hippies and long-haired mystic visionaries. As it turns out my suburban New Jersey teenage imagination wasn’t that far off. The folks at PE&E did so much work from around 1972 on that it was as easy to become familiar with them as it was some of the busiest producers and engineers of the day. They were indeed mystic visionaries. They were also astute business people.
The work of Pacific Eye and Ear and founder Ernie Cefalu is on display at the Rock & Soul Museum in Memphis Tennessee through the rest of the year and if you get a chance to visit the museum you’ll see some of the artwork that defined the classic rock era – things like the original doodle that became the Rolling Stones’ lips logo, the original drawing for Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic and Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. All together there are fifty or so pieces of rock and roll history on display at the museum in addition to the regular exhibit about the role Memphis played in America music history, which is in and of itself worth the trip.
But travel plans aside, the story of Cefalu’s career is at once a sole vestige of the time he came of age in and a tale of how to travel the road to success without compromising every ounce of your soul.
The mystique of the rock & roll business was obliterated for me years ago, but every once in a while the fan in me comes out. Listening to Ernie Cefalu tell the stories behind the most iconic art in American cultural history in the matter-of-fact tone of a hardware store clerk explaining the difference between semi- and gloss is unsettling to a person whose entire life was lived in the wake of that artwork. But that’s the thing, Cefalu had talent and vision but he also considers himself as just a regular guy doing a job and paying the rent. A cool job that regular schlubs wish they had, but a job nevertheless.
A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Cefalu graduated college in the late 60s and found himself working as a graphic artist in Manhattan. Think Mad Men with longer sideburns and wider neckties. The creation of the album cover for Jesus Christ Superstar – one of Cefalu’s first rock & roll works – is a fantastic result of being in the right place at the right time with the right amount of chutzpah, combined with the goods to back it all up. In competition with another more established design house, Cefalu promised a month’s
worth of work completed in a matter of four days and the rest as they say is rock & roll history. Those iconic angels in prayer on that pure and simple background came into your life through one person’s ability to understand the timing of the moment, the importance of the opportunity and the depth of his own skill. If you’re trying to make your way in the world, especially in the cut-throat world of the arts, this should be a guiding example and cause for hope.
Moving to California shortly afterward, Cefalu founded PE&E. The company suffered its fair share of business relationships gone bad and opportunities missed, but when presented with a chance like doing a full-on “comp” proposal of an album for Alice Cooper – who was about as big as you could be in 1971 – Cefalu didn’t second guess the possibility of failure. The result was the cover for School’s Out which to this day is pretty much the image of Cooper we all have in our collective memories.
Golden ages don’t come about by design, they come about by chance. Chance meetings, chance opportunities turned into real successes presented to a public willing to take a chance on new experiences. The music industry in the 60s and 70s is chock full of chances taken and it’s those combined stories that became the golden age of rock & roll. But it was all just a moment in time. To speak to Ernie today is to talk to a guy who is completely immersed in the present and not resting on the laurels of his past. This is the recurring theme I have when I am fortunate enough to speak to the people who played major roles in the industry at that time – it’s less about what they did and more about what they do.
Music and the industry around it is always at its worst when the people in charge play it safe. The “golden age” of rock & roll was less a by-product of the culture of the time than it was the result of a renegade spirit that allowed the people infected with it to push the envelope of the rules far beyond what the establishment of the day dictated. The secret no one tells you is that these renegades also knew how to do business and take advantage of opportunities. That landscape is no different now – the digital music age awaits its own renegades and rule-stretchers.
Pacific Eye and Ear paid the rent with corporate accounts as well as their rock & roll work, but everything they did had the vibe of a time that can never exist again but that should be a template for how we embrace popular culture for generations to come. Ernie Cefalu’s story is a rock & roll life wrapped inside the tale of a businessman with an amazing ability to grasp the present. The next time you spend an evening going retro with your music, check out the liner notes and enjoy a trip back to a time when the marriage of music and art existed on a 12” x 12” piece of cardboard. Chances are you’ll be spending time with a job Ernie Cefalu and his band of renegade visionaires did back when album art mattered.