Adult Play: Storm Thorgerson by Steve Miller
The joker and the LP art genius, an honest-to-God love story
By Raoul Hernandez,
11:30AM, Fri. Jul. 29, 2016
In 2010, I walked into Encore Records – then on Anderson Lane (now on E. Sixth) – and was instantaneously drawn by some all-powerful cosmic magnet to a 40 x 40 record company promo of Steve Miller’s new disc, Bingo! “This looks like one of those old Hipgnosis covers from the Seventies,” I awed to owner Chuck Lokey staring up at its spot high on a wall. Good eye, yo.
Steve Miller: No one has asked me about Storm Thorgerson – ever. I love him so much. Storm was such a genius, and such an amazing, amazing, amazing person. I had a friend of mine who said, “I just saw Storm, and I think you ought to call and ask him to do an album.” I said, “Oh, God. He’s not going to want to do anything for me, and this isn’t even a big record.”
He said, “No, no, no. We should really do it.”
So I called Storm up. I’d met him, and admired his work for a long time. I had a talk with him and said, “Storm, listen. I need a whole lotta stuff. I need a logo, I need a Space Cowboy image. I need an album cover.” I need this, I need that. And I gave him $120,000 or something. He’d had a stroke, and was walking around with a cane, and he also had stomach cancer, but he was the toughest guy in the world.
So he comes out to San Francisco. I’m playing a gig in San Francisco, and he comes to the hotel. He’s got this cane, and he sits down, and he lays out – I’m not kidding – 25 different drawings. And the drawings are un-fucking-believable. They were by this kid in Germany, and these were the ideas that Storm wanted for a possible photo session, but he wanted the drawings first. I have a drawing that is the exact [Bingo!] cover. I mean in scale, in everything. It looks like it was a tracing of the photograph – before the photograph was ever taken.
And he’s sitting there. I’ve gotten what I asked for. “Storm Thorgerson’s coming to see me at a gig, and he’s gonna show me all his stuff this afternoon and it’s gonna be great.” And I’m looking at the stuff and I can’t figure out one fucking thing about it. I felt so desperately stupid that I was just going, “Uh. Uh. Uh.” And they’re on the floor, and he’s poking them with his cane, and I’m just thinking [starts laughing], “Why did I do this? I don’t know anything.”
So I’m looking at that picture, and I’m looking through the others, and we’re going through them all. He’s kinda sarcastic, and he’s brilliant, and he’s Storm, and then he explained every one one of them to me. He walked me through them. I’ll tell you what’s really going on in that picture on [Bingo!’s] cover.
What it is, is it’s two people and they’re having a gun fight. Right? That’s what it looks like. But it’s not. They’re having a fight of rhyming. One guy’s a genius and one guy’s the three-chord stupid guy, which I immediately identified with [laughs]. The guy with the chair, bears, and pears. And the other guy, his thing is all that stuff hanging on his body. He’s going to throw the disc, and the keychain, and whatever.
So that’s an actual visual representation of a really, really, really, really smart writer and a really, really, really dumb writer.
Later on, months later when we chose that and everything, and they shot the album cover and stuff, the really dumb guy is the guy that’s laying on his back dead on the ground. Did you see all the artwork Storm shot for the album, the booklet? It just went on and on and on. He went to Spain and shot that. I mean I got so much for my $120,000. I can’t even begin to tell you how much he gave me.
And then later, he came out and spent time with me in Sun Valley, and one day he said, “I’m in need of a photograph. I need a long road, and it needs to be out in the desert, and kind of desolate.”
I really have to show you all the artwork he did.
I’ve got some of the most incredible albums covers that I haven’t used yet. One of them’s like you’re out in a desert and there’s 30-foot vinyl records that have fallen from the sky and stuck at an angle. And then there’s two little kids standing next to the vinyl and looking up at it. Another one is a 60-foot-long Fender Stratocaster that’s been dug out of the ground and filled with water, and it’s got, like, a hundred people in Fifties kind of clothes all holding buckets walking up and pouring water into the guitar.
It’s just in-cred-ible. And I have fine art prints of all of it. He gave me so much.
He came to stay with me. And he said, “Do you know a place?” And I said, “Yeah, I know a great place.” So, outside of Ketchum, Idaho – out in Hailey, Idaho – you kind of get out and you’re in the desert. There’s this place where there was an old mining town 100 years before, and you go through that. And there’s this winding road that just starts at the top of a hill and comes down toward you. I said, “I think I know what you want, Storm,” and I took him right to it.
He had me be the photographer. I couldn’t be-lieve it.
So I’m working with Storm, doing his thing, and he’s just sitting in his wheelchair directing and telling me what to do. And you know those workout balls? So we have two friends and we send them up the road. They look like they’re a quarter mile away in the picture. And he has the guy throw the ball up in the air, let it bounce, and then go retrieve it – and then come a few steps forward and do that and do that and do that.
We do that all day.
And I feel really sorry for my friend, who said, “Yeah! We’re going to work with Storm Thorgerson. Don’t you want to come?” He was the guy who had to run up there, a quarter of a mile, and bounce this ball down the road for the next four hours and retrieve it.
So I’m shooting pictures and frames of everything. I give Storm all the film, and at the end of the day it’s like this winding road coming out of this desert, kind of like a Mars-rocky landscape that’s winding down toward you, and there’s 60 balls of different sizes just bouncing toward you. That’s what we did that afternoon.
The next day, we went and did a different thing. We made an album cover for some band in Europe where we were throwing buckets of water.
I just learned so much, and I had such a great time, and I was so in love with him, and he was so brilliant, and so sweet to me. He really liked me, and he really liked my house [laughs], and he liked coming to visit me. I just felt so blessed to spend time with him.