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Gary Burden, who designed iconic album covers, dies at 84

Gary Burden, center, along with Jenice Heo and

Gary Burden, center, along with Jenice Heo and Neil Young, accept the Grammy for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package for Neil Young Archives Vol. I (1963-1972) in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 2010. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / ROBYN BECK

Gary Burden, a designer and art director who crafted some of the most enduring images of California rock — record covers from the 1960s and 1970s that featured the blue-tinged face of Joni Mitchell, a surreal shot of Neil Young on the beach and a cheeky photo of the Doors outside the Morrison Hotel — died March 7 in Los Angeles. He was 84.

His wife, Jenice Heo, confirmed the death to The New York Times but did not give a cause. She and Burden collaborated through their design firm, R. Twerk & Co., and received a Grammy in 2010 for designing the boxed set “Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 (1963-1972).” It was Burden’s fourth Grammy nomination for album design, following nominations that led him to appear at the ceremony in a silver-ornamented mariachi suit and a sequined tuxedo purportedly made for Elvis Presley.

Burden, a Marine Corps veteran, came relatively late to rock and roll. He was working as a bowtie-clad architect in the late 1960s when a client, Cass Elliot, singer “Mama Cass” of the Mamas & the Papas, suggested he stop renovating houses and start designing album covers.

“She’s the one who said, ‘You know, Gary, you should make our new cover, you know how to design stuff,’ ” he told the NPR radio program World Cafe in 2015. “I don’t know anything about that. I have never been interested in being a graphic artist or any of that stuff. But she insisted that I do it, and she was right. She handed me a career.”

Trading his square three-piece suit for an outfit of denim and plaid, Burden began devising covers for artists including the Mamas & the Papas, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

The latter group hadn’t finalized its name when Burden and photographer Henry Diltz took a picture of the trio for the cover of their 1968 debut. Only later, when Crosby, Stills and Nash settled on their name, did Burden realize that the musicians had been arranged in reverse order. Some time after that, he learned that the house they were photographed in front of had been demolished, squelching his plans for a correctly ordered reshoot — and resulting, Burden said, in Nash’s yearslong misidentification as Crosby.

It was an inauspicious start for Burden, who soon found himself battling the band’s record label over the relatively expensive, high-quality paper he sought to use for the album cover. “The famous line,” Burden later recalled, “was: ‘You could put a good record in a paper bag and no one would care.’ ”

But the band backed his cover idea and Burden eventually prevailed, perhaps in a sign of the industrywide shift toward ambitious, artistic album design. While pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth experimented with collage on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967), and Andy Warhol created a comically phallic banana sticker for the Velvet Underground’s debut that same year, Burden designed images that were frequently straightforward but highly evocative.

He oversaw the cyanotype-style, blue-toned printing of a Mitchell photograph for “Blue,” the folk singer’s 1971 masterpiece; supervised the Old West-inspired cover photograph on the Eagles’ 1973 album “Desperado”; and helped position singer Jim Morrison and his band the Doors inside the Morrison Hotel, where they were photographed for a 1970 album of the same name.

Burden began working with Young that same year, when he selected a spooky, solarized Joel Bernstein photo for the cover of “After the Gold Rush,” and maintained a partnership with the singer-songwriter for more than four decades.

Among their most memorable collaborations was the cover for Young’s “On the Beach” (1974), which featured the musician standing on a desolate Santa Monica beach in a polyester yellow jacket and white pants, behind decrepit patio furniture and what appeared to be a car fender — or a crashed spaceship — submerged in the sand.

“The idea for that cover came like a bolt from the blue,” Young wrote in his memoir “Waging Heavy Peace.” He said he and Burden “went to a junkyard in Santa Ana to get the tail fin and rear fender from a 1959 Cadillac, complete with taillights,” and bought Young’s outfit “at a sleazy men’s shop” while “stoned on some dynamite weed.”

The photo was taken by rock photographer Bob Seidemann, who died in November.

While Burden sometimes donned the camera himself — he was nearly bitten by a horse while photographing the animal for a 1971 album by Crazy Horse — he typically worked with Diltz, sometimes giving few instructions for photo shoots that could veer in any direction.

His mantra, Diltz wrote in a Facebook post, was simple: “ ‘Just shoot everything that happens,’ he would say to me, ‘Film’s the cheapest part.’ ”

Gary Burden was born in Cleveland on May 23, 1933, and spent much of his childhood in Florida and California. His father was “a Laguna Beach citrus rancher” and also worked in the movie industry, according to a biography on Burden’s website.

A self-described “bad kid,” Burden persuaded his mother to sign papers allowing him to escape into the Marines at 16. He later studied architectural design at the University of California at Berkeley.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In recent years, Burden directed music videos while working on album covers for artists including My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk, Kurt Vile and Conor Oberst.

His design work ranged far beyond rock. One early client, comedian Richard Pryor, wanted an image inspired by the slavery novel “Roots” for his 1968 self-titled album. Burden had Pryor photographed seminude, squatting in the dirt with a bow and arrow, and framed the image in a yellow border that recalled the anthropological covers of National Geographic magazine.

As a result, “I got two letters,” Burden later wrote. “One was a letter from the National Geographic Society’s attorneys offering to sue me for defaming their publication. The second letter was a Grammy nomination for the best album cover.”

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