Robert Crumb Interviewed: "America Is A Cultural Desert"

The world’s greatest comics artist turned 70 in August. I interviewed the great man at his home in Southern France.
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The world’s greatest comics artist turned 70 in August. I interviewed the great man at his home in Southern France.

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Far taller than I imagined if appropriately pencil thin and wearing omnipresent glasses, 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 comix”, and his celebrity is such he’s retreated across the Atlantic to this idyllic village. “From shack to chateau” he drolly subtitled his wonderful 1997 R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book and success has allowed him to purchase a magnificent structure hanging on a hill overlooking a river and the surrounding countryside.

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 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 78 collection alongside all kinds of toys, framed 78s (in their original sleeves), b&w photos of blues musicians, licensed Crumb memorabilia and other such objects that provide both his inspiration and a security blanket of sorts. In the far left corner sits his desk, drawing board, pens and pencils. Everything is in order and 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 no laptop. “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.” He then chuckles, a low, crunching sound that fits with the humour prevalent in Crumb comics, and I imagine him sitting down to illustrate a story where we rise up and overthrow our enslavement to PCs/Macs.

Robert Dennis Crumb was born on August 30, 1943, the son of a Marine Corps father and housewife mother. Growing up around military bases in Philadelphia,  Oceanside, California, and later Delaware, the deeply dysfunctional family found sons Robert, Charles and Maxon retreating into a world where reading, collecting and drawing comics overwhelmed all else. Deeply Catholic, myopic and un-athletic, Crumb grew up observing his parents tear at one another and Charles suffer brutal bullying at school due to his good looks and artistic tendencies. Crumb’s mother numbed herself on diet pills while Charles succumbed to schizophrenia (Maxon would dedicate himself to Eastern religious cults). Robert saved his sanity – and sharpened his worldview – by immersing himself in US pop culture - comics, jazz/blues/country/ rockabilly music, trash TV - and sexual fantasy (girls with robust thighs and a pronounced ass remain his preference). All of which helped shape Crumb into a remarkable satirist of the American Dream.

“About the only power you have is the power to discriminate,” notes Crumb. “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 regional music (1920s blues, jazz, country) is the US’s greatest contribution to humanity.

“I wanted to learn an instrument real bad when I was a kid,” says Crumb on his early sonic adventures. “I first began learning when I was about twelve. There were no musical influences around me at all but I remember having this really strong urge to make music. When I was twelve my mother finally got me a plastic ukulele. I fooled around for years on that plastic ukulele, taught myself, unknowingly ended up playing backwards. Years later when I met other musicians they told me, ‘Crumb, you’re playing backwards!’ but it’s too late now, I still play backwards.”

Around the same age, Crumb became enchanted with the dusty 78s he found in second hand shops. This passion has both continued and extended to 1920s/30s recordings across the globe so making him owner of one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of ethnic music 78s. Leaving school his gift for drawing – one developed since infancy – landed him a job at a Cleveland greeting card firm. In 1967 he landed in San Francisco, excited by possibilities of “free love” and a new psychedelic frontier. Shored up in Haight Ashbury, Crumb dived into the burgeoning American underground - having developed many of his best known comic characters after a particularly heavy LSD trip in 1966 – and found the hippies immediately embracing his work. In 1968 he self-published the first issue of Zap Comix. His reputation as “America’s Best Loved Underground Cartoonist” sealed, rising Haight-star Janis Joplin requested he design the cover for Big Brother & The Holding Company’s forthcoming album Cheap Thrills. Crumb may have hated rock music but his fame rose alongside Joplin’s and like her he engaged in plentiful sex, drugs and, well, not so much rock’n’roll.

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“I did it (Cheap Thrills) because Janis 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. You listen to it now and it’s bad . . . just embarrassing. In the beginning Janis was an authentic, genuine Texas country-girl shouter. Too bad what happened to her. A shame . . .”

Yet when I suggest that Crumb is the only artistic witness to have recorded the rise and fall of the Haight Ashbury counter-culture he is genuinely surprised.

“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.”

The Haight’s hippie dream collapsed once biker gangs arrived alongside a plague of heroin and crystal methamphetamine addiction. By then Crumb’s art had won a wide audience with Keep On Truckin’ becoming a hip emblem (much to his disgust: “you’d hear a DJ on the radio say ‘and don’t forget to KEEP ON TR-U-RUKIN’!’ It became obnoxious.”) and Zap Comix’s success leading to a wave of underground comic artists establishing themselves. His cartoon characters became pop culture icons and lecherous feline Fritz The Cat became Hollywood’s first ever X-rated animated feature. Fame meant Crumb’s old time string band The Cheap Suit Serenaders could record and tour.

“I was never comfortable with performance that much,” suggests Crumb. “Once I stated playing with these guys they saw 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)”

Crumb’s confessional style could be seen as the precursor of reality TV, Tracy Emin’s art and innumerable memoirs. Understandably, he’s loath to be connected with such blatant narcissists, his work succeeding due to his brilliant draughtsmanship and the satiric wit he infuses self-examination with.

“I was pretty alienated living in America – modern American redneck suburban society . . . I didn’t have much to do with it when I lived there and even less since. Culturally it’s a desert. They’ve covered the land with shopping malls and development – I go back once a year and see people and there’s still good things but it’s overall pretty depressing.”

The continual decline of popular music also depresses him.

“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 juke boxes got their name from – would fire the barrel house pianist. ‘We don’t need you anymore! Got a juke box!’ You have to go to somewhere like Serbia where the Gypsies are so outcast they still value their music to really find that kind of music making today. To me,” says Crumb, clearing his throat, “the buying and selling of music, what they’ve done to it, is a disaster on the scale of cutting down the rainforest.”

He stands and strides across the room, plucking out one of his favourite 78s to demonstrate how great music once did sound. Needle to shellac, Crumb’s grinning, counting out the rhythm to a banjo-driven jazz recording. I glance out the window, the beauty of South Western France spreading into the distance, then back towards Crumb who’s animated by the music’s primal beauty. “Fabulous,” I say. “Got any Charlie Patton?” thinking of his masterful R. Crumb draws the Blues book that celebrates Mississippi blues pioneer Patton and New Orleans jazz piano maverick Jelly Roll Morton. “You bet,” says Crumb, diving into his wall of 78s. Disc found a primeval America leaps out of the speakers. “Beautiful,” says Crumb, shaking his head, “such beautiful music.”