By Yasmine Shemesh
VANCOUVER — “It is that whole saying, a picture says a thousand words,” says Rob Frith, the owner and founder of Neptoon Records, when asked about his estimated 500,000-strong concert poster collection. “And with posters, for me, it’s kind of like that. I like the historic, I’ve always been into history. The books I only ever read are historical, usually, and that’s part of it. And I guess I’m a collector, as well. I just collect things and I like historic things and I’m a big art fan, so that’s how it all came about.”
Frith’s posters are featured alongside the accumulated treasures of 20 other collectors in All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their Worlds, a new exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver. It’s a diverse presentation of curiosities, each of which opens a different window of the past. Frith’s collection explores Vancouver’s musical history, as well as reflects the culture of the times. In fact, it was a couple posters of San Francisco left behind by Vietnam War draft dodgers that first captured his attention.
“My dad was in construction and I remember I used to help him on weekends when I was still in school,” Frith recalls. In 1967, they went to an abandoned shack Frith’s father had purchased to tear down, the inside of which was plastered with psychedelic pull outs of the Bay Area — likely memories of home for refuge-seeking Americans. “And I saw them, right away took them down, took them home to my bedroom, and stuck them on the wall,” Frith laughs. Soon after, he started going to gigs and saving promotional flyers. He’d grab posters punctured into telephone poles and ask record shop owners for the prints from their window displays. A picture of a young Frith shows him surrounded by concert posters of touring visitors like the Velvet Underground and Led Zeppelin, and local artists like Tom Northcott.
Frith’s main concentration is Vancouver-related posters from the 1970s or before. The art of imagery was his attraction early on — pre-computerized pieces were hand-painted or printed on cardboard, which echoed the technologies and trends of the eras. Indeed, Frith explains, sometimes it is that iconic image that contributes to a band’s legacy and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship between artist and musician in terms of exposure. One of his favourite pieces is a re-issue he did of a Grateful Dead poster done by iconic concert poster illustrator Bob Masse. Frith reached out to the band for approval and the Dead gave their blessing — they loved that particular poster and even had it hung in their office. Frith and Masse then together published a limited edition of 1,000 copies. “We did it and it turned out beautifully,” Frith says, adding that the expensive paper was so porous they had to run it through the printer twice because the ink would just soak up.
Collectors, as a rule, are passionate people. The urge to hunt and gather is driven by an appetite for something that, in turn, becomes an extension of the collectors themselves — part of their identity. For Frith, as an admirer of music, art, and history, concert posters are a marriage of all the things he loves. They are, quite simply, who he is.
Now, Frith mostly looks for things worth preserving for their historical significance or for something he doesn’t have. “One poster I’ve always wanted and I’ve never been able to find and I don’t know if it exists was Bill Haley and the Comets at the Kerrisdale Arena,” he says, referring to the 1956 concert. “It was the first rock and roll show in Vancouver and I’ve had people tell me that they saw a poster of it, but I’ve just never seen an image of it. I’ve seen ads in the paper [and that] kind of a thing, but I’ve never actually seen a poster — and that would just make my day, if I could find that.”
All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their Worlds is on display at the Museum of Vancouver now until January 8, 2017.All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their Worlds, BC, British Columbia, concert posters, Museum of Vancouver, Rob Frith