David Greenberger and I live in the same small town in Washington County. Many mornings, on my way to work, I spot him walking up Main Street toward the village center, book in hand, and I wonder what he’s up to, what project he’s working on, what thought bubbles would stack above his head if these morning scenes were sketched in a comic. I know – it’s a strange thought, but Greenberger is quirky and mysterious in a comic book protagonist sort of way.
When I first moved to town, I knew him by his contributions to NPR’s All Things Considered. Later, my curiosity led me down the internet rabbit hole to the Duplex Planet, his Boston-born zine that inspired a loyal and passionate following, including fans such as Lou Reed, Michael Stipe, Jonathan Demme, George Carlin, Dan Clowes, and Allen Ginsberg. Monthly issues of the Duplex Planet, which he first published in 1979 and sold at record stores and by subscription for decades, centered on interviews conducted at the Duplex nursing home in Jamaica Plain. Later, his work beyond the zine continued with similarly-styled interviews with the elderly at community centers, nursing homes, and assisted-living centers, which led to new books, CDs, and performances.
Many readers know Greenberger from his column in The Alt, while others may be familiar with his performances at Caffe Lena (and elsewhere) or even his recent exhibition at The Tang. His work is as fascinating and varied as it is impossible to label. Yet, here are a few words others have used to describe him – artist, storyteller, musician, writer, performer, columnist, interviewer, and so on. The New York Times once compared him to Chaucer, and Rolling Stone called him a “stand up sociologist.” You get my point.
A few years ago, via Facebook, I gained an appreciation for Greenberger’s drawings, and I learned that Greenberger, who earned his BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art, also designed album covers. As The Alt’s vinyl issue took shape, that little tidbit of information that I’d stored in the back of my mind, prompted a conversation. I reached out to Greenberger, and he invited me to his house, where we could talk about this relatively hidden side of his career, and where I could view the albums up close.
We sat in his living room, surrounded by art. The coffee table in front of us held a stack of LPs, a pile of CD inserts, and a cardboard sleeve of CD cases. From the sampling, it was clear that he’d designed hundreds of albums over the years. I asked if he favored a format (this is the vinyl issue, after all). “Some people are really into the 12 x 12,” he said, “but the CD offered new possibilities, like the chance for a reveal.” The CD container – insert front, insert back, liner, back cover, label, and spine – offered more real estate as well, especially if an expanded booklet was created. It was easy to understand how a designer might revel in the new challenges and opportunities that the jewel case format offered. That said, the perimeters of the 12 x 12 had its own sort of charm, which was apparent as he showed me some of his early work.
The first album he designed was NRBQ’s Tiddlywinks, which was released by Rounder Records in 1980. The cover, which depicts a small black dog in a doorway set against a cream and black-speckled backdrop, is Greenberger’s own artwork. The font is bright, colorful like construction paper, and reminiscent of tiddlywinks game pieces. It’s a striking design that reinforces the fun, quirky vibe of the music in the album itself. It was well-received. In fact, Rounder, NRBQ’s label, offered Greenberger additional work as a freelancer. Paired with his design work for his own band (Men & Volts), he was off and running.
As Greenberger notes, the bulk of his freelance work was generated from his personal connections to musicians or design gigs from labels like Rounder and later Cuneiform, an experimental, avant-garde label out of Maryland. Over the years, he’s designed albums for Henry Kaiser, Tiny Tim, Brave Combo, The Figgs, Chandler Travis, Willie Alexander, P.J. O’Connell, and many, many others. He’s also designed more than 25 albums for NRBQ.
In general, he starts with a title and some information from the label or the band. Then he tries to find a visual hook – something that is both evocative and connected to the band’s concept. “The back cover is where the design really happens,” he says about the 12 x 12 format, explaining that the back cover must agree with the front cover, convey necessary information in the right font and scale, and carry through the visual theme. With a CD, there’s more flexibility. Greenberger opens an album by The Figgs. The inside back of the insert contains a photograph of the band on the stage at Hubbard Hall (Cambridge, NY). Then, as the insert unfolds, details from Hubbard Hall’s proscenium, for example, become part of the underlying design. Greenberger likes how the design guides the viewer. “You slowly work your way in, using the perimeters of the CD.”
How does this graphic design work connect to Greenberger’s other pursuits? Not as much as you might think. “It’s not my voice,” he says of the design work. “The ‘me’ disappears.” As a designer, he aimed to create a visual piece that was evocative and tied to the music or title. Of course, the goal was also to help sell the album. Throughout the years, there’s been an occasional crossover between his Duplex Planet pursuits and the album work, but those moments were rare.
That said, as we talk and thumb through the albums, it’s clear to me that part of Greenberger’s artistic process is one of collecting and archiving. He likes to save things that he finds interesting in the off chance that they could be useful or generative in the future. Often when he’s looking for an idea or a spark, he’ll return to these pieces and found objects for inspiration or some sort of visual hook. It strikes me that this process of collecting, storing, and mining the material is something that Greenberger does in his writing, performance, visual art, and design.
For example, the cover of P.J. O’Connell’s Join the Crowd contained an old photo of the Pappy and his Friends TV show, which is an Erie, Pennsylvania-based show that Greenberger attended as a child. In another instance – a Brave Combo cover – he used a photograph he came across from a square dance routine at Lake Ave. School (Saratoga Springs). Many other examples exist, including those in his own work like the cover of David Greenberger & The Pahltone Scooters’ Fractions by Stella, which was released in 2014. This cover employs an image of a school assignment that Greenberger discovered one day by a little girl named Stella. The image? You guessed it – a paper with fractions written on it, signed “Fractions by Stella.” Both cover and album title were inspired by this found piece of paper.
Overall, there is a human element, a storytelling element that appears in all of his work.
Before I leave, we talk about the experience of holding an album in your hand, and I wonder if something has been lost as we’ve transitioned to devices and streaming. He notes that the term “album” came from a book-like group of 78s that were packaged together in the early twentieth century; it wasn’t until Columbia Records started making long-play (LP) albums in 1950s that the format we know and cherish sprang into existence. “The album format is not wired into the universe,” he says. “We are back to an era of singles.” Although there may always be a market – however limited – for the full album experience, especially with forms such as opera and classical music that are designed to “stay together,” the visual and tactile experience that once accompanied the music has faded. In many ways that makes Greenberger’s collection of album art all the more impressive, especially for those of us who still crave the visual experience that album art provided when paired with our favorite music.