From the back liner:
About the cover artist:
By Peter Frank
Sam Steinberg is the unofficial artist-in-residence at Columbia University and the Brox’s contribution to the Art Brut quasi-movement of Jean Dubuffet. The 70 year old former ice cream vendor (he still sells candy bars) work prolifically in magic-marker-on-cardboard, with occasional forays into magic-marker-on-cloth, and is popular with the Columbia community for his boids, snakes, moimaids and low prices. His sister Pauline colors them in.
(More in Parts 1, 2 & 3)
Almost everyone hated the cover.
Marc, our non-Columbia friends, critics, everyone. No one thought it was appropriate for such a serious album. Distributors said we’d never sell albums with covers like this one, and, in the end, they were kind of right. Even though it was reviewed as the “electronic jazz record of the year” (no one called it “fusion” yet, thank goodness), there was a sense that putting a “cartoon” on the cover didn’t do the music justice.
Tom and I felt we were being as pioneering in the cover design as the music deserved. Art critic Peter Frank called Sam part of Jean Dubuffet's art brut movement (it’s called “outsider art" today) and we agreed, it was groundbreaking.
Part 2 (of 3) [Part 1, Part 3, Part 4]
Sam Steinberg at Ferris Booth Hall, 1973 (From the back cover of Friends)
Once we’d worked out payment I tried to explain to Sam Steinberg what an album cover is and that I needed a square painting from him, rather than his customary rectangles; he understood when I drew a pencil square on his illustration board.
When he came back with the painting (including his distinctive signature “Sam S.) in a few days it was with Sam’s typical joy and generosity. “I didn’t want to waste the space so I made an extra cat!” And sure enough, he’d painted (actually he sketched in pencil, and his sister Pauline did the coloring with Magic Markers) a circular “album” in orange on a square, solid, black field. Then, tucked in on the left was a yellow regtangle with one of his signature “catz,” his favorite subject.
Sam’s original painting.
We loved the whole thing. Not just the “album” portion, but the yellow & purple cat too. Could we save everything? I spent an awful lot of time on the phone with the printer at the pressing plant in Phoenix trying to suss out whether he could rearrange the elements so we could use all three catz, 20 years before Photoshop, when everything had to be done by hand with cameras and negative film.
At the last minute Marc decided the record shouldn’t be the first “Marc Cohen [Copland]” album; everyone had contributed too much. He came up the distressingly banal “Friends,” and arguments to the contrary, that was it. Sam didn’t really write or read so I tried my best to simulate his signature from the lower left corner of his paintings. We asked Columbia grad, art critic, and future museum curator Peter Frank to write Sam’s blurb* for the back cover, and I then did my typically bad job on writing and laying out the back liner (as The Oblivionettes) and the cover was finished.
"Hey mistah, I got paintings here! Or maybe you want a Hoishey bar."
Anyone who was on the Columbia University campus between 1967 and 1982 would hear Sam Steinberg touting his wares every weekday (thanks to Flo Grant for quoting Craig Bunch’s Folk Art article). Sam was a street peddler turned “outsider”, urban artist, and he was adopted by generations of Columbia students who bought up to 20 paintings each week from this man with a genuine vision. And, he only “exhibited” (aka “sold”) his work exclusively on the Columbia campus.
So, since leader Marc Cohen (aka Marc Copland) had been a Columbia student, and we were recording his first solo album at Columbia’s radio station, it seemed appropriate to use one of Sam’s paintings for the cover.
Oblivion was perennially broke and we’d never “commissioned” a cover before but Tom and I thought in this case it was justified. But how to price it? Sam was selling his work for $2.50 a piece (!) and it would be wrong to just pick one up and appropriate it. So, one winter day I approached Sam and offered him $10, plus something he really needed in life. “Shoes. I need a new pair of shoes.” We walked across Broadway into a shoe store and I shelled out my last $40 for a new pair of perfectly fitted, ankle high, warm shoes.
Sam seemed so happy in his new shoes. Imagine my surprise when a couple of weeks later he was back to his old pair (too large, with newspaper tucked in to make the fit). “They were too slippery on the ice.”
(More in Parts 2, 3, 4)