In the late 1960s, painter Peter Max was almost as famous as the rock stars he befriended, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Paul McCartney. Like them, he was a fixture on TV (Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson) and in print, as when he made the cover of LIFE magazine in 1969. With artwork that employed bright, boisterous colors and festive scenes of stars, planets and rainbows, Max helped define the counterculture of his era. He's still an active artist (and a rabid fan of rock and other music). So when Outside Lands invited Max to create a poster for this weekend's festival in Golden Gate Park (the poster is only available at the festival itself), Max leaped at the opportunity.
In a phone interview with SF Weekly from his home in New York, Max talked about the evolution of his signature style; his friendships with Hendrix, McCartney, and John Lennon; how the movie Yellow Submarine ripped off his art; and why he's still very much in demand as an artist.
Q: Your Outside Lands poster, which you call "groovy," is evocative of your colorful work in the 1960s - including the use of bright colors and planets. These are still your trademark features, it seems.
A: That's my style. I invented it. It was the Peter Max style. And then of course, over generations, people sometimes copied my work. Just like people inherited a little bit of the stuff that the Beatles did. But it was my style. And it still remains my style.
Q: In the 1960s, your psychedelic posters helped popularize that style of art. Are you still doing work like that?
A: Well, that was the style back then. It was inspired by all the things that were happening in the 1960s. Everybody was experimenting. Then it filtered into the rest of my work.
Q: Paul McCartney is performing at Outside Lands, and you've been a friend of his for more than 30 years. What's your connection with him?
A: He's a good friend of mine. I love his musical ability and his love for the music. About a month and a half ago, we spent all day long together when he was in New York. I was also good friends with John Lennon, and with George Harrison. The fact that both of them are gone, I still can't believe it. I miss them both so much.
Q: How did you meet the Beatles?
A: As an artist, I'm always on top of so many things. I'm doing concerts. I'm doing this. I don't even remember where I met them. It was so many years ago. They loved my art. I loved their music. It was mutual admiration.
Q: You're often associated with the Beatles' movie Yellow Submarine, which features a lot of what could be called Peter Max colors and a Peter Max style. But you weren't involved in the movie. Or were you?
A: I was going to do the film. What happened was, I was with the boys (Beatles), and their manager desperately wanted me to do it, and I was living in New York, and my wife at the time - who's still my best friend - was pregnant with my little daughter and about to give birth, and I couldn't go and stay in Europe for 4-5-6 months while this was going on. I wanted to do it in the United States. Because I couldn't do it, and I wanted to be home, there was another artist in Europe who copied my work. His name was Heinz Edelmann. I was pissed, and I told him, "I don't like you copying my work." And he said he'd stop. But then I saw his card, and it said, "Heinz Edelmann - the German Peter Max." I told him, "Take my name off your card. And just enjoy your work." He passed away (in 2009). I felt bad about the whole thing.
Q: How old are you now?
A: I look like I'm 45. I act like I'm 46, but I'm about 25 years older.
Q: Woodstock was a seminal moment in music history, and you were there for that - not on stage, but in the audience, as a guest of the promoters and musicians.
A: Jimi Hendrix and I were best buddies for years. He had a place in Woodstock. And I had a place about four blocks away. There wasn't hardly a day when we didn't have coffee together. Janis Joplin was a friend of mine. Albert Grossman, who managed Bob Dylan, was also my best friend. When I went to Woodstock, my friends were the ones who did the concert. At Woodstock, I was with Michael Lang, the promoter. He's still my best friend. When they did a second Woodstock concert (a few years later), I created the stage for it. I love music. I love the musicians I knew. I'm grateful to the universe that my friends became so famous. And I'm grateful for what's happened to me. I've created in my lifetime over 1,000 different posters. I've done posters for everyone - for Super Bowls, for rock concerts. I've painted maybe 50 of the biggest movie stars, and 40 of the biggest rock stars. My work is in over 1,800 museums around the world. I can't even believe it. My art is my life, and my life is my art. And my life is also my wife, my kids, and my friends. Everything I do is what I want to do.