The Tale of Mr. Fish – Part 1
In 1988, when I was first beginning my career as a record store owner, I was at the store one day when my wife came in breathlessly and told me I had to go to a house a few blocks away because there was a guy selling off all his posters. In those days, she used to go to a lot of garage sales and buy records or tapes for the store. To be honest, I was never very supportive of her efforts. I’d usually tell her it was scratched-up junk. This time though she was insistent. It was only a few blocks away, and there were hundreds of old posters. Begrudgingly I accompanied her back to the guy’s house. There, in front of an old Washington Park row house was a front yard completely covered with the entire contents of a person’s life. Furniture, a few dishes, and, in this case, lots of empty beer cans and stacks and rolls of posters. There were a few people looking through this and that but not a lot of activity. A slim, bearded guy, as faded as the jeans he wore, recognized my wife, ambled up and said: “are you the guy interested in posters?”
At this point in my life, I was actively and avidly collecting any authentic poster I could find from the vintage eras of rock and roll. The man introduced himself as John Fish and gestured at the posters, “I got plenty of posters.” I started to look through a stack. The top few were advertisements for local, now defunct, Denver bars and restaurants. I noticed his name at the bottom of each of them, denoting him as the artist. When I got to about the fifth poster, I literally gasped as I saw it was a poster for the legendary Denver venue Mammoth Gardens. It depicted a mammoth standing on top of a pig and it said “Support Mammoth.” The next one was advertised blues/rock great Johnny Winter; the next Leon Russell; the next Stephen Stills. I was starting to freak out—doing my best to control my growing excitement. I looked up at Mr. Fish and asked: “you were the artist on all these?” He looked momentarily proud: “yeah, but I gotta get rid of everything, they’re kicking me out.” I continued looking through posters.
Finally, I stood up and faced him: “would you sell me everything—all of them?” He looked really relieved. It turned out, he’d run out of time. Nobody was buying anything, and he had been about ready to give up and just walk away. These were our very early days at Twist And Shout, and I had almost no money to spare. But I think we agreed on a few hundred bucks for all the posters in his yard. I paid him and loaded the posters up and took them back to the store. I pored over them for the next few days, marveling at Mr. Fish’s unique, cartoony style and the important piece of Colorado and rock and roll my brilliant wife Jill had stumbled upon.
I decided then and there to not sell the posters but to try to keep them together as an archive. The only exception has been when Bill Graham Presents opened The Fillmore in 1999 and contacted me to get some to put up in the new venue. I told them I didn’t want money, but I would trade them one for one for first editions out of their archive. It was only a handful of posters that I traded, but it provided me with some rare early San Francisco posters I would have never gotten otherwise. Some of those John Fish posters can still be found on the walls of The Fillmore today.
In Part 2, I will share more about John Fish the rare gems from his incredible body of work. I will also give some more background on Mammoth Gardens/The Fillmore. Stay tuned!