It's long been said that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. And the Orange County Regional History Center has been steadfast in its fight against that particular curse, evidenced by affecting exhibitions on the Pulse nightclub shooting and the Ocoee massacre. In the case of their newest exhibition unveiled last week, Figurehead: Music and Mayhem in Orlando's Underground, the optimal outcome is both to make people aware of this vibrant period of Central Florida's nightlife history and maybe even encourage a few museumgoers to perhaps take a few tips from Figurehead's improvisatory playbook and repeat a "mistake" or two.
Figurehead the exhibit chronicles the highs and lows of maverick concert promotional group Figurehead through a visually dazzling and carefully constructed exhibition of concert posters and flyers carefully collected over the years by "head Figure" Jim Faherty. The poster designs are jaw-dropping, courtesy of a small corps of Orlando artists and designers who created a unified visual identity and aesthetic up there with 4AD and Factory — both influences Faherty readily cops to — using abstract imagery that promises much in the way of musical "shock of the new." For many, the exhibition will be somewhat revelatory in discovery: This went on in our backyard? For others, it's a sort of high-school reunion, each poster conjuring up memories of forgotten nights out, some hearing gladly lost in the service of bold new music.
The exhibition is artfully arranged and material thoughtfully explained every literal step of the way. By dint of volume, it becomes a veritable avalanche of alternative music coming straight for you: Lydia Lunch, Elliott Smith, Seven Mary Three, Modest Mouse, Bauhaus, Sonic Boom, Bad Afro Experience, Matchbox 20, Sam Rivers, Belly (with Radiohead opening!), Henry Rollins, Sonic Youth all jostle for space on posters and live photographs from the shows — many provided by our own Jim Leatherman (we say pridefully).
From the years 1985-2001, Figurehead — named after a particularly bleak Cure song from Pornography (with This Mortal Coil's just-as-bleak "Velvet Belly" being the runner-up) — was a force to be reckoned with among independent promoters in Central Florida, luring amazing touring acts to the City Beautiful, while fostering a strong core of local worthies as well. Though nominally presided over by the Tony Wilson-esque (with all the good and not-so-good that implies) Faherty, Figurehead does seem to have been a family affair, as evidenced by the oral histories you can access via mock payphones throughout.
The exhibition will be up through September 2023, augmented by a robust slate of programming — the weekend before going to press we caught a lively talk from Insomniac zine publisher and WPRK alum Israel Vasquetelle, punctuated by a Q+A with a number of young folks picking his brain on publishing and hip-hop history.
Rather than being one-and-done, History Center staff express interest in using Figurehead as a launching point for more deep dives into unchronicled areas of Orlando music history. Keep an ear out.
Shayni Rae is an important part of the Figurehead story — and, indeed, the story of alternative music in Orlando — as the co-owner of iconic downtown concert hotspot Sapphire Supper Club (now the Social) with Faherty. When the Sapphire opened in 1994, Rae was at the forefront, making sure both musicians and audience had a unique experience, and an extensive cocktail menu, every time. More than just just a series of shows, Rae and Faherty were trying to create a scene.
Are you surprised to see some of your work fostering the music community in Orlando end up in a historical archive?
The team at the Center did just a tremendous job with their execution of the whole show design. In theory, you know, Jim donated a bunch of paper flyers, and they really took that and went deep and created something that I think, for somebody who either was part of the scene or was not, is a really visceral experience.
At the time, what were your impressions of the Orlando music scene and how have they changed looking through the lens of this exhibit?
I had come from Cleveland and the first concert I went out to was the Butthole Surfers and Bad Afro Experience. ... "I'm going to see the Butthole Surfers at a place called the Beach Club?" I thought I was really going to be frustrated. But what did happen was a really fantastic, eclectic crowd. Immediately I could see that there was a legitimate music scene here.
A big part of why things were so interesting then is that there were a lot of creative artists there ... without that wealth of talent in Orlando it couldn't happen. It was a capsule of time that I think is really impressive. And after leaving the Sapphire and going to more small clubs around the country, it was noticeable that we were doing something a bit above and beyond what the normal 500-capacity club was doing.
Jim has taken pains to stress that Figurehead was a collaborative enterprise.
One hundred percent. Jim is the figurehead, but the figurehead of an entity that had a lot of moving parts — especially when you're basically building a scene and a cultural network, in an organic sense before the internet, before Pitchfork, before cell phones ... It's important that we had a lot of different viewpoints. And the graphic artists, I mean, Thomas Scott and Jeff Matz are two of the best graphic designers in the country. So it took a lot of different people to make it work.
When we opened the Sapphire it was my idea to do a supper club. I grew up around the jazz scene and, you know, alternative music just means that it's an alternative to the mainstream. So we were doing every single type of music there and we just couldn't be knowledgeable in every single genre. So we had to work with many people to bring these ideas to us. Because of that, we were successfully open to a lot of different and new ideas because so much of it was new to all of us.
Were there any particular posters that spurred memories?
Elliott Smith. That was a big one. We had worked with him a couple of times, and just a really, really fantastic artist and probably one of my favorite shows.
And the Sam Rivers picture by Jim Leatherman was super impressive. One of my highlights of shows at the Sapphire was working with Sam.
First and foremost, Jim Faherty wants you to know that he's still, in fact, with us. "At the opening, I just kept hearing 'it's a celebration of his life,'" exclaims Faherty. "Stop saying that! I'm still alive!" Indeed, he's poised to open a new artists' market in Sanford very soon. After that, he wants you to know that Figurehead was so much more than one person, and Orlando music is so much more than Figurehead. All that aside, Faherty seems pleased with how the Figurehead exhibition turned out, and how it accurately chronicles years of booking shows through pay phones, losing money happily, driving to cities all around Florida just to staple posters to telephone poles (barely back in time for his day job the next morning), and making it all up as they went along.
Did you ever think that your life's work would end up in a museum?
It's creepy. Wait, that's not the right word ... Look, I donated 10,000 posters and pieces but I never saw the entire exhibit before it opened. I was never involved in the narrative or the final selections, they wouldn't let me go through it. But I'm so proud of it. It's amazing, it's really kind of unbelievable.
How did you manage to save all of them over the years?
I was so appreciative of the artists that made those posters. I had this ridiculously huge party house downtown in Delaney Park and I had a music room with all flat files. I had a bin for flyers and I would just make it a habit every show to keep multiple copies of every flyer and poster. I kept everything from every show because I really wanted to have a history for myself. Even if I got senile, I'd remember I did a Camper Van Beethoven show
Was it important from the start to have a strong visual identity for Figurehead?
The two biggest influences were Factory and 4AD. I went to see Cocteau Twins in 1983. And the guy who did that show was a huge influence. So I went to see the Cocteau Twins and he had a program — and this is basically a punk band — of the music he's playing, the music videos he's playing, he's playing the Fall, Nick Cave, the Buzzcocks. Now he's doing releases, and then the posters are all hand-done by all these artists. I got to interview the Cocteau Twins. I got to meet the artists that actually made the posters. And I said, "That's what I want to do. When I start doing shows in Florida I want to do that exact thing. I want to have artists do these amazing posters. I want the artists involved." I emulated Factory Records. Have you seen 24 Hour Party People? That's how I was back in the day.
There were a lot of very creative people pitching in to make Figurehead.
The biggest thing, honestly, for me was that we had a big committee helping me out with this, with the artists and the bands and the fans. People helped me with the sound and loading in the bands. It's such a big friends-and-family thing, helping however they could. There were so many hands reaching out to make these shows happen. Now everything's very singular, one person trying to do it. It was a big group. It wasn't just Jim taking the lead. It was like Jim with 30 people to pull off one show.
Rock & roll is an enterprise that trades on myth-making and larger-than-life figures — and that includes Jim Faherty and a fair amount of the creatives in and around Figurehead. So give exhibit curator Jeremy Hileman and the hard-working staff at the History Center credit for getting the names, dates and timeline untangled from a haze of late-night memories. The History Center used Faherty's donation of posters and ephemera along with extensive oral history-style interviews to tell the story of a singular sector of Orlando nightlife. If Hileman and the Center have their druthers, this is just the beginning.
What was the initial genesis of this exhibition?
This all started from our work on the One Orlando Collection at the History Center of items that pertain to the Pulse nightclub tragedy. Each year, for the last five years after the tragedy, the History Center hosts an exhibition that showcases some of those items. For our fourth year ... one of the things that we really wanted to find out more about was the history of the building.
And with Jim being involved with Dante's [pre-Pulse club] and owning it for a period of time — which was just prior to Pulse taking over the space — I thought, "Hey, this guy would be interesting to talk to." Also I knew a little bit about him in terms of his name getting thrown around quite a bit, as far as music history locally. We were able to get a hold of him to do an oral history, and we talked about Dante's and then he had so many stories related to his work as a promoter.
He told us stories about when he promoted the Dead Kennedys show in 1985, and all these things here that he had done, and that's great for our oral history collection ... but it just so happened that he brought in a few items to show us. Eventually, he went through his collection and donated several hundred posters and pretty much the entire discography of his Figurehead record label.
Pretty quickly once we started getting this material we're like, "How do we showcase this in some way?" I think that it would have been a disservice to just slap the posters up on a wall and call that an exhibit. So we were able to gather these oral histories and quotes and photos from Jim Leatherman — which was a huge hit. I don't think that we could have properly told this story without his photos.
Would you mind naming some of the other people you interviewed ...
We were able to speak to Shayni Rae, who worked with Jim over the years, with both Figurehead and when they were co-owners of the Sapphire Supper Club. She was a huge resource.
We also talked to Michael McRaney, who was a local musician who played many Figurehead shows and then went to work for Jim and then eventually run Foundation, booking both the Social and the Beacham.
We interviewed five people who were contributors to the design work of the posters: Thomas Scott, Jeff Matz, Scott Sugiuchi, Greg Reinel and Klaus Heesch. They were not the only ones that did posters, but I think those were the individuals that Jim leaned on the most as far as his design work.
But as far as more prominent names, I mean, we were able to do interviews with Jason Ross from Seven Mary Three, Henry Rollins, Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices, Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, Lydia Lunch, Jonathan Richman ...
The exhibition is going to be up for about a year. How will you be further exploring it during the run?
We were lucky enough to get a grant from Florida Humanities to do some things through the end of the year and we're trying to expand our viewpoint of the music community here in Orlando. We're doing a program this weekend that's centered around local hip-hop culture, which is not something that's really focused on in the exhibit, but that's an important part of the Orlando music community. There's several other areas, dance music being one of the main ones, that I would love to get some people who are involved in that to speak to us and be involved in some of our programming.
I would say the main focus going forward would be building out our programming and featuring some of those things and allowing people the opportunity to present or be involved that don't necessarily fit cleanly into the Figurehead story, but using that as a springboard to cover Orlando music a little more comprehensively.