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The Surreal Charm of Raffi

An art critic’s deep dive into his visual appeal

The cover of ‘Evergreen Everblue,’ released in 1990, wouldn’t have been out of place in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2016 exhibition “Flatlands.”

The children’s musician Raffi has always inspired an outpouring of affection and nostalgia. (In what might be the definitive — and certainly the strangest—profile of the performer, writer Sheila Heti even explored his status as a complicated sex symbol.) As with other offbeat cultural icons — Mr. Rogers, say, or Rick Steves — it’s very nice to know that Raffi has spent the decades since he rose to fame being a nice person, empathetic and progressive.

Raffi, now 72, lives on a Canadian island. He has a dog named Luna, and an Instagram account on which he shares pictures of healthy meals, recording sessions, and sunsets. His politics don’t suck. He’s still the kind of guy you’d want to share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with.

My rediscovery of Raffi, at the age of 39, has been thanks to my son Nico, now 15 months old. There’s a lot of kid’s music out there, most of it about as pleasant as a mouthful of nails, but Raffi’s oeuvre withstands repeat listens — and by repeat, of course, I mean endless.

But I don’t really want to talk about the experience of listening to Raffi here; what I’ve been fascinated by is looking at Raffi, specifically at his stranger album artwork from the past decades.

Raffi performing in Toronto, 1984.

A whole different piece could be written about the minimalist stage design for his 1984 set at the Bathurst Street Theatre in Toronto, immortalized via concert film: that three-panel video screen, with its evolving wash of colors; Raffi’s beautiful, kitschy shirt; that crooked side table with its cup of water and bouquet of flowers. (If I were a conceptual artist with a limitless budget, the work I’d like to make, perhaps in collaboration with Ragnar Kjartansson, would be a 21st-century recreation of that concert. Same venue—which survives under a new name—and same set list. Track down everyone in the audience, 35 years later, and film them singing along in versions of the same outfits they wore as kids.)

While Raffi himself might not be responsible for designing his own album artwork, the aesthetic choices he’s made throughout the years have been nothing less than stellar. Intentionally or not — probably not — they’ve also jibed with touchstones in contemporary art.

Take the cover of 2008’s Animal Songs, with its elegant serif typeface. While some of Raffi’s later albums would revert to more typical, childish motifs—a cartoon owl hooting in a tree, etc.—this one goes with a stark photograph of a few stuffed animals sort of thrown together in a pile. These creatures, who would never hang out together in real life (a cow, a lion, a seal, a rumpled little thing that’s maybe a raccoon) are set haphazardly against a red backdrop, as if begrudgingly posing for a school portrait.

It doesn’t look like a children’s album at all. If anything, the artwork for Animal Songs resembles an installation view of a Mike Kelley artwork; the late L.A.-based artist was well-known for squeezing pathos out of sad stuffed animals. In Arena #7 (1990), a troop of whimsical critters hang out around the perimeter of a bare white blanket, hosting the sparest picnic ever. For more epic sculptures, Kelly bundled hundreds of brightly colored stuffed animals into masses that hung from the ceiling.

1982’s ‘Rise and Shine’ is another classic. Confusingly, it seems to have two alternate covers; the more interesting one finds Raffi inside the outlines of a house on the beach, where he smiles and holds a glass of orange juice.

Interior of the Dream House.

There’s something weirdly rave-adjacent about this image (including that orange juice), but it’s also reminiscent of the Dream House, a multimedia environment created by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela (it’s been tucked away in Tribeca for decades, and you should definitely visit once it’s safe to do that again). In general, the Rise and Shine house’s tubular outline would be right at home in the Minimalist collection of Dia: Beacon.

Moving on: Check out the vinyl cover for 1979’s Corner Grocery Store. The title song is an earworm: cheese walking on its knees, plums twiddling their thumbs, etc. (We’re in proper Surrealist territory, in the sense of ‘chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table.’)

But WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? Raffi looks a little stunned. He’s holding two tomatoes like he’s just gotten caught stealing them, or is preparing to juggle. He’s wearing an epic bowtie as well as a shop apron that spells his own name out. A Bob Ross look-a-like—presumably Ken Whiteley—is straight-up lurking behind some ferns. Some random kid is imprisoned by flowers.

Is this a children’s album cover or a precursor to the school of Canadian photoconceptualism exemplified by the likes of Jeff Wall or Rodney Graham and other members of the Vancouver School? Compare the scenario on Corner Grocery Store with one of Graham’s staged self-portraits, like Remorseful Hunter or Media Studies ’77. I only wish Raffi had carried on this concert further-self-portraits as an amiable-but-awkward surgeon, teacher, bus driver, Prime Minister, etc…

Which brings us to Bananaphone (1994), whose album cover is so hip that Jack White of the White Stripes posed with it when announcing a Raffi collab that very sadly seems to have fizzled. Raffi appears here in the former of a little sticker emblazoned with his name and a Canadian maple leaf. He wears a cheery red baseball cap and demonstrates proper bananaphone etiquette: You put the stem bit by your ear, and talk into the other end. (Duh.) This mode of communication is easy, accessible, and addictive. (Major kudos to the artistic genius who decided to Photoshop bananaphones into classic film and TV moments…and to whoever thought to mash-up Raffi’s classic with Drake’s Hotline Bling.)

A Photoshopped image of ‘Breaking Bad’’s Walter White on a bananaphone.

Now, even the most cursory follower of the art world knows that the banana has a serious pedigree. Andy Warhol slapped one on the cover of the first Velvet Underground album. Puerto Rican conceptual photographer Adál Maldonado posed for a self-portrait with one attached to his face.

Aaaand way back in 2019, you might remember one event that hijacked all art reporting and made its way well into the mainstream: Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian, a.k.a. “that banana taped to the wall that was being sold for $120,000.” While there’s no way to prove that the Italian conceptual prankster was inspired by Bananaphone …let’s just say Raffi might be due some royalties.

Raffi’s more recent album art has settled into a comparatively conventional groove. There are some exceptions: the cover for the 2012 single On Hockey Days has a scrappy, zine-like aesthetic that could make you think it’s a hardcore album from the late ’90s. Raffi’s latest release, Motivational Songs, is actually geared for an audience of adults, and it’s cover is very no-frills. (opening track “Wave of Democracy” is so earnest and good that it might make you forget Trump was ever president.)

Let’s never try to second-guess what Raffi might get up to next. He is an eniga—a children’s musician who never had kids!—and a national (well…Canadian) treasure. Just when you think you’ve got him figured out, you find out that in the mid-to-late 1970s he actually released two grown-up folk albums, one of which was called Adult Entertainment, and featured a PG-rated come-hither image of Raffi on the cover, sniffing a rose.

Good Luck Boy (1975) and Adult Entertainment (1977), via Reddit.

And jeez, we didn’t even get to explore how Raffi’s earliest records-with their messy, scribbled, kid-designed covers-fit into the canon of Outsider art or the philosophies of Rhoda Kellogg! Next time, kids. Until then: Swim wild, and swim free.

— Scott Indrisek

FF0083 is Lemonade’s art and creativity blog. What’s Lemonade? Glad you asked! Find out more here. Sadly, we don’t currently offer insurance for bananaphones.

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