The Tale of Two Covers

Roger Keen
4 min readMar 28, 2023
Man of Letters 1977

I created this photomontage at art college back in the1970s, as an attempt to convey the surreal, discombobulating weirdness of several LSD trips I’d undertaken over the previous two years with my special tripping mates.

Specifically, it drew upon the trepidation of having to phone our parents to explain our absences during a particularly hair-raising trip in home territory. It was one of my most successful images from that photography year, and it drew much attention and praise at the end-of-year show.

Much more recently, after the publication of my psychedelic memoir The Mad Artist in 2010, I used it on my blog and Facebook pages to publicise the book’s trippy content, and it had another life in the Internet Age.

In addition, I formed a desire to make another version of ‘Man of Letters’: a head-and-shoulders portrait using a similar self-image from the ’70s, together with the scrambled alphabet effect. Having encountered the work of many talented artists whist writing for psychedelic magazines and websites, I approached a few with a brief for this, but none were prepared to take it on…

Then I had a piece accepted for Psychedelic Press XXIX in their ‘My First Trip’ strand, and I exchanged emails with editor Niki Wyrd. I suggested that she might possibly commission an artist to do the letters-based illustration as the cover for the issue, and she thought it a good idea…

And next, an amazing example of Jungian Synchronicity takes place

Just as I was reading a new email from Niki, on the computer, telling me that she had found an artist to do the aforementioned cover, my iPad pinged to notify me of a new message…It was from Trevor Denyer of Midnight Street Press, who’d seen the 1977 photomontage on Facebook and wished to use it for the cover of a short story anthology he was compiling…

So, right in the middle of finding out about a new ‘letters’ portrait to be used as a book cover, I learnt simultaneously that my old ‘letters’ portrait was also going to be used as a cover! How dizzyingly mind-blowing is that‽

The Midnight Street anthology was entitled Strange Days, and it was the utter ineffable weirdness of a guy making a telephone call in an old box, surrounded by a menacing sky and a landscape strewn with letters of the alphabet that attracted Trevor to the image.

It worked perfectly — both in design terms and as an ideal reflection of the book’s content; and it tied in with my own Strange Days out of which the photomontage manifested. The phone box part served as the front cover, with the title above, and the lettered landscape then bent around the spine and made up the back cover, with the contributors’ names in the sky. And the 1970s image had a renaissance, yet another life, as the book circulated to high acclaim.

As for the Psychedelic Press cover, that didn’t quite go to plan, though the outcome was still most satisfactory. The original intended artist couldn’t manage the job, so another took over, Tom Andrews, who created his own interpretation of the first trip story, as a more abstract design, using an eyeball and stark tree branches in a mandala pattern with the letter effect subtly woven in. It conveyed the intensity and apocalyptic nature of the trip very well…

Two years on, and I was planning my collection of psychedelic essays, Man of Letters, and I considered that now, at last, was the time to get that lettered portrait cover made. There was only one man for the job, the artist and cover designer Dean Harkness, who’d done such superb work on the cover of The Mad Artist: Psychonautic Adventures in the 1970s, rendering the title in the psychedelic style of Roger Dean’s 1970s album covers for the prog rock band Yes.

Firstly, Dean did a charcoal portrait sketch based on a 1976 studio selfie, done with a Rolleiflex and cable release at art college; and then he created the lettered background, which, as anticipated, proved difficult and finickity to achieve. Dean finally managed to get the effect of random letters floating in space by using a separate Photoshop layer for each one and then juggling them around.

The addition of the book title and other lettering in vivid colours completed that juxtaposition of chromatic wow-factor and monochrome that works so well — on this cover and also the cover of Strange Days. Thus, finally ‘The Tale of Two Covers’ reaches its pleasant conclusion!

Man of Letters is published on Thursday 30th March. More information: Darkness Visible Publishing.



Roger Keen

Writer, filmmaker and film critic. Author of The Empty Chair, Literary Stalker and The Mad Artist: Psychonautic Adventures in the 1970s | |