Today we remember a man Neil Young calls a “friend for life” and “collaborator,” a Grammy Award winner whose name surely appeared in the rolodexes of California’s musical elite in the ’60’s and ’70s…but whose name is all but unknown to most fans. Designer Gary Burden passed away this day in 2018, at age 84.
“Album covers are an integral…often overlooked part of our musical listening experiences,” the CBC reminded us in a tribute to him. And Gary was among North America’s best at creating memorable ones. He was born in Cleveland to “a very conservative family and I didn’t fit in.” Curiously, his way of getting away from that was one of the most conservative-seeming routes… he joined the Marines! After leaving them, he spent a bit of time leading a “beatnik” lifestyle in California before settling down enough to go back to school. He studied design at the University of California, eventually graduating and working in architectural design. His lucky break though was having Cass Elliott hire him to remodel her house.
She liked what he did, and got along with him so she told him “you should design our new record cover – you know how to design things!”. And he did, designing the first Mamas and the Papas album cover…and getting to hang out with the group, and other Laurel Canyon musical friends of theirs all the while. “I blew off my three-piece suit and never looked back,” he says. “I was born – the real me.”
Soon he was the “go to” guy for the L.A. Music crowd when it came to making album covers. “How to visualize the music, that’s been my mission.” Conor Oberst, one of the last musicians he worked with says “Gary always wanted the album packaging to reflect the spirit of music (and thus) he was often at odds with the record labels when they sought to cut costs at the expense of what he and the artist had envisioned.” Happily he usually got his way!
After the Mamas and the Papas, he soon was doing covers like Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut, the Doors Morrison Hotel (taken looking in to a real hotel named that, which Ray Manzarek had discovered driving around L.A.) and Crazy Horse’s self-titled one. That was a memorable one on two counts. One, because Burden typically envisioned and designed the cover, he more often than not got a photographer like his friend Henry Diltz to take the actual photo. “I was intimidated by the camera,” he said, but for this “I took that picture of the horse.” Which leads to the second reason it was memorable – “it was trying to bite me!”
He did Joni Mitchell’s famous Blue (“this was such an honor for me. That’s the only cover of hers that she didn’t make herself.”) , the Eagles Desperado and Jackson Browne’s The Pretender. But his most enduring artistic partner was Neil Young. Young liked Burden and his art, and told Rolling Stone they made at least 40 album covers together and “I still have covers for unreleased albums that he made for me” which he says will see the light of day eventually. It was with Young that Burden won a Grammy, for packaging of a Young box set in 2010. Burden picks Young’s On the Beach as his all-time favorite. The one with Young, facing away from the camera, staring at the sea in a bright yellow shirt beside a tacky yellow lawn dining set and with a fin from an old Cadillac sticking out of the sand “was about America in the ’70s where everything was cheaper than it looked.”
Burden was survived by his wife Jenice Heo, an artist herself. She worked with him on some covers and was for a time Art Director at Warner Brothers records. It’s hard not to think that his passing mirrors a passing of an era in music… because say what you will about Spotify or downloading mp3s, there is just no comparison to seeing a little 200X200 pixel picture on a phone screen to holding a 12” X 12” piece of art in your hands while listening.