Green Day’s “Insomniac” by Winston Smith
Subject – “God Told Me To Skin You Alive” – a mixed-media collage created by artist Winston Smith and used on the cover of Green Day’s 1995 release on Warner/Reprise records titled “Insomniac”.
“Insomniac” was the fourth studio album from Bay-area punk rock band Green Day. The follow-up to the very successful predecessor “Dookie”, it was released in October 1995 and although it went to #2 on the U.S. charts (selling 2 million + records), its slightly darker approach to song-writing and lyrics kept it from spawning any mega-hit singles (as their previous record did in droves).
Their traditional punk roots kept the songs tight and fast, but their eagerness to experiment with some “punk-pop” tunesmithing, less-traditional chord progressions, all coupled with a more hard-rock-oriented studio mix, produced a recording that was a bit more tame (but, in my opinion, more musically interesting) than the more balls-to-the-walls approach of their previous releases. While their music may have been a bit less raw, their selection of Winston Smith as the illustrator for the record’s packaging could not have been more punk. With a pedigree that included works for the Dead Kennedys that were banned in some countries and lambasted by the Religious Right, Mr. Smith found a group of young collaborators eager to create a cover that would stick a pin through the eyelid of their fan base. Let Winston explain, in his own words…
“I met (Green Day drummer) Tre (Cool) when he lived up in Northern California. One day a couple years later he gave me a call and asked if I’d do a record cover for the band he was in, Green Day. Without knowing anything much about them I said, ‘Sure.’ And the next thing I knew, Tre and Billie Joe (Armstrong) – I think Mike (Dirnt) was out of town that day – were sitting in my studio pouring over photocopies of almost everything I’d ever created. The image that grabbed them the most was the pair of figures appropriated from Jan van Eyck’s ‘Wedding Portrait of 1434’, in the picture ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (page 17 of his book ‘Artcrime’), so I used that as the nucleus for my composition.
My title for the piece, ‘God Told Me to Skin You Alive’, was a reference to a comic book-style religious tract that Biafra and I used for the fold-out poster included with the first Dead Kennedys’ album, ‘Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables’. This phrase was also Biafra’s first line on side one of that album. (My cat, 911, now wears it on his collar tag…) Bill instantly got the reference the moment I showed it to him. He asked how long it took me to create and I said that, not counting the two weeks prior which were consumed with locating and high-grading hundreds of images for the winnowing-out process, I’d spent the last 38 hours working on the assembly of the composition. He asked me how it was possible for me to stay awake that long and I said, “It’s easy for me. I’m an insomniac”.
Interestingly, the original working title for the album was to be “Tightwad Hill”. I don’t know if my remarks inspired the final title of their record, but if not, then it’s a weird coincidence.
When the Green lads were examining the new cover art I’d created for their album they noticed that there were two skulls in the composition. I told them there were in fact three skulls, one for each band member. They couldn’t locate the third skull until I held the picture flat and pointed out that by looking at it from that oblique angle, what previously appeared to be a blurry piece of driftwood protruding from the fire came into focus as a perfect human skull.
This distended skull was originally from the 1533 painting by Hans Holbein the Younger titled “The French Ambassadors”. It is an anamorphic image; that is, it changes shape when viewed at an angle. Trompe-l’ceil art of this kind was popular during the Renaissance. I have somewhat re-adjusted it in order to show how it would look from the proper angle. This re-formed version appears in the Tijuanna No! Contra-Revolucion Avenue composition (Ed. note – see page 52 of “Artcrime”).
Winston Smith Bio –
(Portions excerpted from the winstonsmith.com Web site)
Winston Smith is an artist armed with razor blade and a fiendish wit. His modus operandi since the 1970’s has been to kidnap “innocent” images from the pages of vintage magazines and then to diabolically glue them into compromising or politically revealing positions in his surreal collage landscapes. “Perhaps the most vibrant collage maestro since Max Ernst,” wrote popular underground artist Frank Kozik, who goes on to credit Winston with being “single-handedly responsible for an entire generation’s graphic style.” Smith’s name is a reference to the character of the same name in George Orwell’s novel “1984” (Smith was the main character and a clerk at the Ministry of Truth, where he worked on re-writing history books to appear in line with the current Government’s portrayal of historical events).
After studying in Italy, Smith moved to San Francisco in the 1970s, working primarily in the road crews of Bay-area rock bands such as Santana and The Tubes. In the mid-70’s Smith, along with fellow artist Jayed Scotti, wrote, illustrated and published a satirical magazine titled “Fallout”, while also producing and posting flyers for non-existant gigs in San Francisco (just to confuse the heck out of people).
To illustrate an article in Fallout about organized religion and our obsession with money, Smith created a shocking 3D work fashioned from a real crucifix covered with money (titled “IDOL”). After a color photocopy of this work was submitted to a local art show, a friend of the Dead Kennedy’s leader Jello Biafra told him of this work and asked for samples of this and other works. This led to a long-standing series of collaborations with Biafra, the Dead Kennedys and their “Alternative Tentacles” label, creating logos (the famous DK and Alternative Tentacles logos), CD covers, and numerous related works.
Since then Smith, once known only to DK fans and the punk underground cognoscenti, has been gaining popularity in mainstream culture. He’s had one-man shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London and Rome. His debut book Act Like Nothing’s Wrong was published in 1994 by Last Gasp of San Francisco was favorably reviewed a wide variety of regional and national magazines. His eighteen month (1995-97) sojourn as illustrator for SPIN magazine’s Topspin political page further brought his work to national attention as did his award for “Best Cover Illustration” from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in 1997. On the musical front, his bizarre “Insomniac” alum cover for the popular neo-punk band Green Day was voted a favorite in a 1996 readers poll in Rolling Stone Magazine.
A version of Smith’s IDOL illustration (which had graced the cover of the DK’s 1981 release “In God We Trust, Inc.”) was later featured on the cover of the April/May 2000 issue of The New Yorker magazine. His works have also appeared in Playboy, Wired, Spin, Utne Reader, and many other punk-related publications.
Two decades down the line, Winston’s style continues to not only to have political punch, but it has also developed an almost classical surrealism. His recent album cover for Tijuana No!’s – Contra Revolucion Avenue has been called the collage equivalent of a cross between Picasso’s “Guernica” and the social realism of a Diego Rivera WPA-era mural. Another fine example of his new style is Apocalypse Wow!, a full page spread commissioned by SPIN magazine that depicts a swirling end-of-the-world populated with a mind-blowing array of whimsical images from sword-carrying angels to flying poodles.
The growing demand for Winston’s humorous and controversial collage illustrations prompted the release of his second and third books, Artcrime and All Riot on the Western Front and the production of his first-ever series of collectible archival prints. The jumbo scale and fine quality of this new print series hugely expands the already powerful visual impact of Winston’s work. Intricate collages, formerly seen only in miniature on CD covers or in newsprint, take on a whole new life when blown up and printed on archival papers. We have arrived at the threshold of the twenty first century. It’s time to call off the art police. The work of mischievous art-criminal Winston Smith is finally being brought to full color justice.
In 2006, Smith married artist Chick Fontaine, with Bay-area icon Wavy Gravy performing the ceremony.
Click here to see this work in the RockPoP Gallery collection