Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Robert Crumb returns

Robert Crumb interviewed by Robert Hughes- New York Public Library, April 14th

Now a French recluse, the comix whiz returned to his home country to celebrate a new anthology for a sold-out show. It was mostly an older crowd there who no doubt remembered him back when he was turning the world of illustration on its ear in the 60's, helping to elevate it to an art form (the NYPL has his work in its collection now). But like John Cassavettes, Crumb is a to-the-bone innovator with questionable relationship to women. To bolster this, the Village Voice listing announcing the show was read there, noting that Crumb was 1) sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny when he was a kid, 2) represented id in its pure form, 3) gets his issues/frustrations out in his art work.

Having an art critic interview Crumb doesn't sound like a good idea but when it's Robert Hughes and his desert dry British wit and unconventional views, it's a good match. Starting chronologically, Hughes wondered where it all began for the comix pioneer. "I was a child of popular culture- TV, comic books, Dick and Jane, watched TV a lot- it was a good babysitter. Howdy Doody, Lone Ranger, Felix the Cat, Donald Duck. My parents didn't have culture with a capital 'K'... My dad was a classic John Wayne American type of man who didn't think that reading comics was manly... His three sons were complete, defective weirdos (one of Crumb's brothers committed suicide and another lives in California hotel room, scrapping by with selling paintings).... My mom would buy us comics... When I started drawing, I tried to copy Donald Duck and I just tried to bend it into a crazy, perverted (thing) and just kept drawing... trying to make it past a silly teen thing to do. I've become part of a specific lineage where you're proud that you picked that up from this guy or that guy..."

"Comics are mostly for mainstream market- it's not seen as something personal..."

Hughes: One reason why you're popular...


Hughes: ... is that you're fearless, crazy...

Crumb: (manic laugh)

Hughes: ...unaffected by political correctness.

Crumb: Maybe I should be... With my headless women, jigaboos. I didn't realize how hurtful that all was. But I crave acceptance. I want to be loved.

Several audience members: WE LOVE YOU!

Crumb: OK, you love me. Now back off, you're killing me!

Hughes asked about accusations of racism in Crumb's work, which he readily recognized: "canned nigger hearts," Angelfood McSpade, etc.. "They were stereotypes, 1920's images, and I was playing around with them. It's hard to explain but it's not my job (to do)."

And what about his infamous drug experiences? "If everyone took LSD, we thought we'd have a better world..." he reasoned, back then at least. "It became clear, we perceived things wrong in industrialized civilization, we had to get back to nature... Our parents were wrong (and there was a) nuclear balance of terror..."

That pervasive sentiment was heard recently in Nick Bromell's book Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s. The same idea that the right mix of chemicals would free everyone to see things clearly and understand the facades that are presented to us as reality. This sweet naive reasoning didn't seem to be embraced by Crumb nowadays and even Bromell evokes it as nostalgia.

Crumb: "I'm 60's identified but I don't consider myself part of it... I consider myself outside of it even though I took LSD and said "Oh wow." I'm stuck with the label- it's annoying as hell. What about my stuff since then? Some people were struck by my work when they first saw it but they stay there... Some people do identify with me, other pitiful guys, that's my fan base. They'll say to me how much they loved 'you and Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan...' I think 'Oh Jesus... doesn't mean that much (now)...'"

Which leads to his other beef with the 60's- the music. "I hated all of that crap... the endless Dead solos... I liked early rock, when it was rough, working class. In the 20's, blues was done by the lowest bums, at the bottom, couldn't even get a job as a slave. Early rock reached back to the 20's and 30's folk and blues." Contrast that with Bromell who saw drugs and 60's rock at the time going hand in hand to potentially deliver listeners to a exalted plain.

From Marcus Boon's recent book The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs, there's this observation about Beat writers: "cannabis held the utopian promise of escape from White America... (According to Allen Ginsberg) when people actually tried the weed and discovered its real qualities, it led them to question the whole state apparatus and its ideology was also a fiction... Weed culture in the 1960s and 1970s was full of Rabelasian laughter: Paul Krassner's the Realist, The Fabulous Furry Freak brothers, Robert Crumb, Cheech and Chong.'"

Crumb's work didn't push the idea of transcendence, at least in the same sense that's usually thought of in the rock culture of the 60's. He engaged himself, maybe too much for his own good, pouring himself into his drawings and worked out all of his psychosexual issues there, seeking release that way and challenging anyone who would see past the surface sexism to wonder about their own libidos. "To do this... you really alienated from culture to conceive of this type of stuff. You've got to be at the point that you've got nothing to lose. You do Tom Wolfe's 'boho dance.' I lived my youth on paper- it was fun to draw that stuff. Then I learned how to cope with people. Otherwise, I'd be drawing those big butts on a prison wall. (Now) having a printed book is the biggest thrill... (In comics) many are called, few are chosen..."


"Comics was a subculture... High art sniffs at comics. They don't see it in same way as part of the 'isms' of art. Maybe because art prints are precious articles, comics are mass produced. I used to give away some of my prints- what a fool... I was later told "get into the art thing- that's where the money is!" And yet... "the great thing about comics is that it's a low medium. You can just draw any stupid thing you want, don't have to be deep."


"It helped but it can be hell... Fame is nothing without money but you need women... can't get beautiful lovers without fame. I became a celebrity since the documentary (Terry Zwigoff's 1998 film about him) and it's weird, it has its perks. I've wanted to withdraw but then ego pushes you forward. Recently, the London paparazzi made me want to quit. I think Madonna had it right- she said 'to me, the press is just shrubbery.'"

As he came out in the beginning of the lecture and the cameras flashed, he grabbed Hughes' walking cane and shook it playfully/threateningly at the NY paparazzi. After Hughes decided to let the audience in on the fun, Crumb stopped him because he had a question for the crowd. "How many of you believe that you'd really want to be a celebrity?" Few raised their hands. He looked somewhat satisfied that (some of) his fears and suspicions were confirmed.


Q: How do you compare your early works with your later works?

A: I don't like the early work to the exclusion of later (things). Most people just know me from Fritz the Cat, Keep on Truckin', the Cheap Thrills album cover and the documentary. The early stuff was spontaneous, wacky. Now, it's more trepid, careful.

Q: In your art work, you seemed miserable, but not in real life?

A: I got it good now, I can't complain- it's unattractive.

Q: How did it feel seeing an actor playing you in American Splendor?

A: It was eerie (to which his wife in the audience added "if you were really like that, I would have divorced you!")

Q: What did you think of the movie version of Fritz the Cat?

A: It was a terrible travesty but I didn't want to fight with those people.

Hughes (about dealing with Hollywood types): "When Louis B. Meyer offered Errol Flynn to play a game of golf, Flynn was said to respond 'the day I'll play with a prick, I'll play with my own.'"

Q: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring artists?

A: If you want to be an artist, you don't want to be happy and listen to pop music. Alienate yourself. It's hard to sustain focus and concentration in face of little money or recognition. There's really no venues- my books don't sell much, 10,000 maybe.

Q: You live in France now. Do you plan to die there?

A: I plan on dying in France. I went there to die.

Well, not quite yet Bob. You still have more obsessions to get out in your work obviously and some of us are grateful for it while some continue to be agitated about it. That's why you're still needed.


Anonymous David Beardsley said...


Cool article.

Did you see the Zwigoff film? The Crumb family was really strange, makes mine look normal.


1:51 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

is this hughes the art crrrrrritic? if so his nationality is australian, not british, although his wit is entirely anglo, fer sure.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Perfect Sound Forever said...

Thank you David. I did see the Crumb doc and I felt relieved for the same reason that you did- I felt better about my own family too.

Phil is right to point out that Hughes is an Aussie- I should have made that clearer. You're also right to say that his wit is definitely Brit. He's the kind of guy you could have over for a dinner party and never get bored, no matter what the topic of conversation is.

9:48 PM  
Anonymous David Beardsley said...

Robert Crumb and Gilbert Sheldon were such positive influence on the teenage me. I think I started reading those comix when I was 13-14 years old.

3:52 PM  

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