Interview: Robert Crumb
Robert Crumb opens the door to his medieval chateau in a village somewhere in the south west of France and says – as Americans tend to – “Hey, nice to meet you.” He extends a long, thin hand on a long thin arm and we shake. A droll look crosses his somewhat gaunt features, suggesting this most private yet public of artists is perhaps a tad ironic in his welcome. “Come in,” he says. So I do. And immediately we are plunged into shadow.
Crumb is celebrated for many reasons, most famously as “the father of underground commix,” and his celebrity is such he’s retreated across the Atlantic to this idyllic village. “From shack to chateau” he subtitled his 1997 R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book. The chateau’s interior – narrow stairways, large rooms, cool against the afternoon’s heat and dark – suggests our desire to have well lit homes was not a consideration a millennium ago.
Crumb, wife (and fellow artist) Aline Kominsky-Crumb and daughter Sophie shifted here in 1991, fortuitously escaping the release of Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary feature Crumb. Brilliant as Zwigoff’s film is, it hugely inflated Crumb’s notoriety, establishing him as perhaps the most recognisable American artist since Andy Warhol. Yet where Warhol courted celebrity Crumb shuns it.
Crumb leads me into his study. This is the room of legend, often photographed so to display his magnificent, 5,000-strong 78 record collection alongside all kinds of toys, framed 78s (in their original sleeves), black & white photos of blues and jazz musicians and licensed Crumb memorabilia. In the far left corner sits his desk, drawing board, pens and pencils. Everything is very tidy.
An old record player, one designed only to play 78s, occupies a prestigious space. There’s no TV, radio or stereo system. And no computer. “I hate ‘em,” says Crumb when I mention how strange it is to be in someone’s study and find it Mac free. “They’re a curse and now that everyone can do their graphics using a computer package means individual, hand drawn illustration is nearly extinct. No one learns to letter anymore. So everything ends up with the same look. It’s too depressing to think about.”
No one learns to letter anymore. So everything ends up with the same look. It’s too depressing to think about.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 30, 1943, the son of a Marine Corps father and housewife mother, Crumb and his two older brothers rejected the hyper-masculine American culture surrounding them, instead immersing themselves in comics, music (old jazz/blues/country) and trash TV. Young Robert marinated all this in baroque sexual fantasy (girls with robust thighs and a pronounced ass remain his preference). Add LSD and a shift to Haight Ashbury to the mix and Crumb, formerly a greeting card designer, developed into a remarkable satirist of the American Dream.
“About the only power you have is the power to discriminate,” Crumb has noted. “Living in a culture like this, you have to make choices, and search out what has the most authentic content or substance. As a kid I became increasingly interested in earlier periods of culture. All the media of the time presented an image of a happy consumer America. The illusion was the opposite of the sordid reality of everyday life, with stressed parents fighting each other and worrying about paying the bills.”
Crumb believes vernacular music (both American and that from across the globe) is humanity’s greatest creation and his passion for music leaps out of his art – he has issued three series of playing cards that feature musicians (now collected into book form as R Crumb’s Heroes Of Blues, Jazz & Country), drawn a series of strips on early blues and jazz that are collected as R Crumb Draws The Blues and illustrated many album covers: these are finally gathered in his latest opus, The Complete Record Cover Collection.
Crumb also plays music, having started out with The Cheap Suit Serenaders – an old timey string band whose efforts seemed willfully out of sync in the 1970s but now appear very hip considering almost every young American and British musician is attempting to play banjo and dress in 1930s gear. When he relocated to France, Crumb joined Les Primitifs du Futur, an eclectic string band who ranged across Gypsy jazz and Latin music, who issued two fine Crumb-illustrated albums. He has contributed to several other bands and is now a member of McCamy’s Melody Sheiks, a four-piece whose latest album, There’s More Pretty Girls Than One, was recently released on Arhoolie Records, the Bay Area roots music label run by Crumb’s old pal (and fellow 78 collector) Chris Strachwitz. Unfortunately, this effort does not come with a Crumb cover.
Living in a culture like this, you have to make choices, and search out what has the most authentic content or substance.
Crumb first came to wide public attention when Janis Joplin asked him to illustrate Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills album. His brilliant cover (knocked off in a single night’s sitting “on speed”) won Crumb a wide audience for his “head comix.” True to form, he turned down offers from The Rolling Stones and other rock bands to do their covers (as he loathes loud rock music). Instead, Crumb documented San Francisco hippie culture as it briefly flowered then crashed and burned.
Since then he’s proven a droll satirist of rock culture while championing the timeless beauty of acoustic music largely created pre-World War II. He agreed to this interview so long as we focused on vernacular music and I didn’t pester him with questions like “didn’t you once meet Jim Morrison?” or “do you still take LSD for inspiration?”
What first got you interested in music?
There were no musical influences around me at all but I remember having this really strong urge to make music. I was always fooling around with music. When I met my first wife she was part of the folk music scene in Cleveland so I kind of appropriated her guitar and started figuring out a few chords. Then when I moved to San Francisco in ‘67 it was the first time I got together with other guys who were serious about playing old time music and it was still the folk era, so the jug band thing had some popularity. So I started fooling around with these guys and we became The Cheap Suit Serenaders.
I was never comfortable with performance that much. Once I stated playing with these guys in the ’60s they saw that we could get paying gigs because I had a name by ’68 and I went along with it. Often the comic fans would turn up and they’d tell me, “Boy, your music is terrible!” Laughs. “Hey, how about Mr Natural? Can you draw me a picture of Mr Natural?” [laughs] Often we got that response. But ironically on the other hand every once in a while I get a letter with a CD from young musicians who have been inspired by The Cheap Suit Serenaders. To them we’re like what the old time musicians were to me.
I rarely go out to flea markets these days, partly because the supply of 78s has really dried up.
I’m a great fan of Hot Women and Gay Life In Dikanka, the compilation CDs of obscure ethnic artists you have put together from your 78 collection and illustrated beautifully.
The old music that I love inspires me visually. That said, I’ll never do a compilation CD like Hot Women again. It’s way too much work! When you take on a project like that the producers want you to write extensive album notes. I had friends doing research on the Internet but a lot of these people are very obscure. It took months of work – and all the artwork! And getting the 78s re-mastered. I’m nervous about lending out my 78s and I had to give them to this guy who took them to somewhere and then had to get them back.
Speaking of collecting, I’m guessing you knew both John Fahey and Joe Bussard (the Virginia based collector whose 25,000 78s constitute the world’s largest collection of pre-WW2 American roots music).
John Fahey – he was a crazy asshole. A psycho. Joe Bussard – a total madman! [laughs] He’s completely obsessed with 78s. His wife finally left him. She put it to him – “either me or the 78s” and so he chose the 78s. He’s the most obsessed guy I know.
Are you still collecting?
Not so much today. I have so many records, such an embarrassment of riches. I rarely go out to flea markets these days, partly because the supply of 78s has really dried up. You can still find stuff from the 1950s – and there are collectors who will pay a lot for ‘50s 78s – but the supply of ‘20s and ‘30s 78s has really dried up. I know a guy from western Pennsylvania who still diligently collects and finds good things – he checks death notices and estate sales – but he lives in a real good area, that Pennsylvania/West Virginia/southern Ohio region. A good area for country, blues and gospel 78s. I’m amazed at the way he still finds good 78s around there!
Do you have a dividing line for when music went from being blissful to what you call a more generic style?
With jazz and other pop forms it takes a sharp nosedive in the early 1930s. When it goes from the “jazz age” to the swing era – Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, they get those smoother sounding “sophisticated” sounds. Everyone was supposed to sound sophisticated as an alternative to sounding naïve and country. “Country” was such a term of contempt. It sounds like you’re a hick from the sticks. You’re supposed to be embarrassed by that. It was the death of real, authentic rural music. Truly a cultural disaster.
What about blues then?
But you like Robert Johnson and he was recording in the mid-1930s.
He’s like the last of the old time blues sound to make it on to commercial records. There were a couple of guys that recorded post-war who still sounded old time but they were complete anomalies. Johnson was considered “old time” when he was recording – there were some very slick guys around by the mid-1930s. I think the black population was like the rest of the US and wanted to be seen as sophisticated, to embrace the prevailing urbanity.
What about the electric stuff like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf?
That doesn’t interest me at all.
Something has been lost in the push to make music modern and commercial and slick.
Because it’s electric or the way it’s recorded?
The difference between the stuff that I really like (the 1920s and early ‘30s) and that stuff is a whole different mood, a whole different... I don’t know what it is… a magic that’s not there. Maybe it’s a romantic thing. It conjures up visions of dirt roads and going deep into the back country. Even if they work in factories they still have that sound of something old and atavistic. Something that has been lost in the push to make music modern and commercial and slick. Something has been lost in this, this whole commercialisation of music.
It’s not discussed enough... someone should write a book on it – how we really lost how we make and listen to music with the onslaught of mass media. It’s changed so much – in 1933 there were 20,000 jukeboxes in America. By 1939 there were 400,000 jukeboxes! That immediately eliminates so many live musicians – a juke joint – which is where jukeboxes got their name from –would fire the barrelhouse pianist. “We don’t need you anymore! Got a jukebox!” You have to go to somewhere like Serbia and a group like the Gypsies who are so outcast they still value their music to really find that kind of music making today.
You grew up in the 1950s when rock & roll was first breaking through. Did you ever like Elvis and that kind of music?
I did, yeah, I thought it was a breath of fresh air after Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra and all that crap. Jerry Lee Lewis and all that early rockabilly had something atavistic in it. Once in a while Jerry Lee would do something syncopated on the piano and that just thrilled me to hear. I loved that stuff with the early rockabilly guitar and dance feel to it. That kind of wild, dance energy is lost now in American music. It used to be everywhere. Rock & roll came from the small backwoods southern places and the Frank Sinatra generation hated it. That’s why little labels like Sun flourished. I remember reading the Clive Davis book about his career in the music industry and he talks about how – for the first couple of years – the big companies resisted, thought it was a fad that would go away. Then they started seeing Sun making money, so they started picking up on it and making it more digestible for the middle classes. And lots of the songs were delinquent songs – stealing cars and mauling sixteen-year-old girls! Frankie Lymon made that record “I am not a juvenile delinquent.” [laughs]
To me the last great rock & roll record was Tommy James & The Shondells doing “Hanky Panky” in 1966.
In the late ’50s they started up that TV show American Bandstand and around that time you started getting this East Coast Italian thing with Fabian and Frankie Avalon. Wretched stuff. Rockabilly lingered on but only in the South. I had a little radio by my bed when I was a kid and I’d stay up late at night trying to find these tiny Southern stations that still played that kind of music but it was getting harder and harder to find. To me the last great rock & roll record was Tommy James & The Shondells doing “Hanky Panky” in 1966. After that the psychedelic thing happened and it was all over for me, pretty much, as far as contemporary pop music was concerned.
What did you make of the British invasion when it happened?
There was some interesting stuff but The Beatles never really excited me all that much, they were a bit bland for my tastes. They had a good sense of melody but it just doesn’t reach me as deeply as that old stuff. By the time all that came out I was already steeped in the old stuff. When Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and all that folknik stuff came out, I just found it irritating. Hated it. It sounded silly to me. Dylan was trying to be “raw” but not convincing. He was inspired by Woody Guthrie and while I like some of Woody’s recordings he’s not nearly as interesting as some of the earlier singers in the same genre as Woody, but they’re so obscure and forgotten – Lake Howard and Goebel Reeves, two of my favourites, crazy hillbilly Okie singers and guitar players from the back country.
As a collector and a connoisseur you have to make all these decisions about what’s good and what’s not and that’s part of the fun of it.
What you realise when you get into that obscure old music is that just because you get to the top of the charts doesn’t mean you are any good. Look at Charlie Patton – no white person had ever heard of Charlie Patton until the ’50s and he had been dead since 1934. He was only known in Mississippi and some other regions of the South where the few records he made sold OK. No white people knew of those black blues guys at the time. I wonder how John Hammond found out about Robert Johnson? Someone clued Hammond in about Johnson – maybe it was Alan Lomax who had been running around the South – but no one knew about Patton at all. As a collector and a connoisseur you have to make all these decisions about what’s good and what’s not and that’s part of the fun of it. You have to make these choices. You can’t listen to everything. You can’t collect everything.
You arrived in San Francisco in 1967 and saw the whole Summer Of Love/psychedelic thing at its peak along with rock being transformed from clubs to stadiums and thus becoming a corporate form. What was your take on all that?
More and more young kids wanted to be hippies so it was a boomtown. Guys like Chet Helms are looked upon as heroes. He was this impresario who ran The Family Dog that started with love-ins and special events and then became more professional, putting on regular concerts at the Avalon Ballroom. I recently read this article calling Chet a hero and it stated “he was the first person to let bands play as long as they wanted and as loud as they wanted.” My reaction was “he should be spanked!” [laughs] “He should’ve been put in prison!”
But you created the cover for Cheap Thrills: did you like Big Brother’s music?
No. I did it because Janis [Joplin] asked me to and I liked her. She was a swell gal and a very talented singer. Ever heard any of this pre-Big Brother stuff she recorded? She was great. Then she got together with those idiots. The main problem with Big Brother was they were amateur musicians trying to play psychedelic rock and be heavy and you listen to it now and it’s bad... just embarrassing. But Janis had played with earlier bands just playing country blues and it was much better. Way, way better. She’s singing well, not screaming, not playing to the audience that wanted to watch her sweat blood. In the beginning she was just an authentic, genuine Texas country-girl shouter. Too bad what happened to her. A shame...
It’s ironic you can’t stand the sounds of the Summer Of Love as you will forever be associated as its chronicler!
Yeah, isn’t it though... There’s this story going around that I used to hang out with The Grateful Dead, used to live with them in Haight Ashbury. What nonsense! I didn’t know them at all.
On one of your cartoons you wrote, “Music is the soul of human society”: care to elaborate?
I don’t know where I got that idea. It’s something to do with the ear, how we respond to sound, it’s very deep, deeper even than the visual response, it’s something to do with how we respond to harmonic sound, that it can reach something so deep in us. To me, the buying and selling of music, what they’ve done to it is a disaster on the scale of cutting down the rainforest. It’s horrible what they’ve done... took it away from the people. You hear people say “I can’t sing, I don’t have a good voice.”
Who has a good voice? What they mean is they don’t sound like a slick professional they hear on the radio and on CD. It’s just professionalism and training, like opera singers. People have lost confidence in themselves to make music for their own pleasure. They can only see making music as a thing to be a star, to have a hit record. The mass media gods, strutting upon the stage... and people seem to need gods, I s’pose. That’s not going to go away [pauses] but let’s be clear, it isn’t really about music.
Yet you are also a celebrity? Admittedly, without being as famous as Madonna.
Yeah, it’s weird. I don’t understand it really. My books don’t sell like Stephen King or even Alan Moore. I’ve become like this person who “represents the ’60s” which is odd as I was not a big part of it. Underground comics did not become a big thing until the early ’70s.
Yes, but you recorded the rise and fall of the Haight Ashbury counter-culture. You were there, you did the drugs, hung out with the freaks, knew the bands and reported on it all. No one else did. Few novels came out of it. Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson arrived later. Yours is the frontline reporting people turn to.
Really? You think that’s true? I hadn’t really considered that. I guess the only things on paper that represent that era are the posters and the comics.
Robert, you’re the John The Baptist of the psychedelic era.