If you’ve listened to popular music in the last 50 years, then you’re familiar with the work of John Berg. He was the longtime art director at Columbia Records when album art mattered, when rolling a joint on the cover of a Santana record was an art form unto itself and getting lost in the overall creative experience of music and its visual accoutrements was something to get excited about. Guild Hall in East Hampton is bringing those good vibes back in an exhibition that features many of the four-time Grammy winner’s visual greatest hits.
Berg was the creative visionary behind more than 5,000 album covers, including many that were once (and hopefully still are) part of every audiophile’s collection. Berg’s best works include Bob Dylan’s iconic SoHo strut on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Billy Joel’s soulful posturing on 52nd Street and the brotherly love of Clarence Clemons and The Boss that defines Springsteen’s Born to Run.
Berg’s work comes from and speaks to his pure aesthetic, one that foregoes the surface splash of advertising and dives headfirst into true creativity. “I’m a designer,” Berg said. “We try to make things look good and try to have a good time doing it.” That’s the basic marriage that Berg brought to all of his projects. And it’s that simplistic approach that brings a joie de vivre to his art and complements the music it represents.
On one hand, if you can envision the balloonish, flowing fonts, brilliant day-glo colors and trippy graphics that defined the boogie and the cool of the seventies through bands like Chicago and Sly and the Family Stone—then you can see John Berg’s impact on popular culture. On the other hand, if you can allow yourself to be hypnotized by the solemn, dramatic and understated black and white portraits of Simon & Garfunkel on their album covers, or the whimsy, mystery and wry smile of Dylan in all his forms, then you have a window into Berg’s creative soul.
Berg’s relationship with Dylan stretches all the way back to Dylan’s early folk years in Greenwich Village. Berg and the entire art department at Columbia were inspired by his chameleon-esque persona, his sound and his vision.
“I did his first album cover and many afterwards,” recalled Berg. “John Hammond was his producer. We really liked his music; it was just a natural fit. That first [Dylan] album was pretty much what you see, just a small publicity shot done in our office. The second one (Freewheelin’), Bobby had the pictures, picked one out, brought it in and asked if we could use it. I said sure. He was part of the family.”
Berg did actually get his start in advertising, but took only the lessons from that cutthroat world that he needed to foster his own creativity and the creativity of those around him as he wound his way down Madison Avenue, eventually stumbling into Columbia Records.
“I went to Cooper Union and I worked for a telephone company doing in-house manuals,” Berg recalled. “Then I worked at a few agencies and I didn’t like that. I wound up at Esquire. Then I worked at Escapade, which was a girlie magazine. I just walked into [Columbia] one day; the art director at the time knew who I was. I didn’t know how because I didn’t know who he was. My intention was to leave my portfolio there for freelance work. Instead they hired me as art director.”
During his twenty-five year reign at Columbia, Berg traversed all genres as he worked closely with many of the biggest luminaries in music then and now including Barbra Streisand, Jeff Beck, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and countless others. Of all the great work and all the great relationships, Berg was reluctantly able to single out his finest moment.
“Born to Run is one of my favorite covers,” said Berg. “It’s iconic. That’s an art director’s dream. That’s what I’m put on earth to do, to capture that picture.”
The brotherhood and spirit of that shot—and that time period—are qualities that Berg knows have long disappeared from today’s entertainment world, where profit drives the bus and artistic integrity is lucky to even grab a seat.
“There doesn’t seem to be a record business anymore,” Berg lamented. “I don’t even know how you get music these days. You go on the computer I guess, and pay for it.”
So while there may be no way to recapture that special moment when you tear the plastic off a new LP to devour everything about it, you can bask in the warm nostalgia found in Berg’s fervent creativity as it’s displayed at Guild Hall through the new year.
The John Berg exhibition will run until January 6 at the Wasserstein Gallery, Guild Hall, 158 Main St., East Hampton. (631) 324-0806, guildhall.org.