This is the fifth in a continuing series of discussions. In February, 2013, I asked Robert for his comments on another list of celebrities and artists. If you'd like to hear his opinion on someone we haven't covered in this or the previous interviews, please e-mail your suggestions to [email protected]. We can't promise that we will get to all of them, but we will add them to the list for future interviews. -- Alex Wood, Wildwood Serigraphs
Robert: When I was 17, I read On The Road, and it sickened me, because my reaction was, "Oh God, these guys are out there having so much fun. I'm not having any fun at all. I'm just sitting here in my parents house. But them — the girls, the adventures, they're just like having a fuckin' lark On The Road."I liked his writing. I still like his writing, I think he's a great writer. He has a very particular, specific genre that he does of that time. He's very much of his time, you know, the non-conformist in the post-war era. But I like Kerouac. I haven't read everything that he's written. Sometimes I intend to go back and read more of his stuff, but I haven't read anything he's written in a long time.
JEAN PAUL SARTRE
Robert: Sarte? A funny guy, Sarte's a funny guy. You know, people don't think of him as funny because he was so serious about existentialism and communism and stuff like that. He was a very strong communist. After the war the CIA was very concerned about what was going to happen in France, and they did not want France to go either socialist or communist after the war. And there was such a big popular movement after the war, everyone was so disgusted by what facisim had done. So the CIA did everything they could, subtly without him knowing what they were doing, to pull him away from that, to try and involve him in cultural events that had more to do with the liberal democracy idea. But Sarte, he wrote a book about his childhood that was pretty funny. It's very self-deprecating, and he writes about what a little bourgeois, arrogant shit he was as a kid. Funny guy, I like Sarte. Yeah, it's true that he got all nit-picky about existentialism, he and his girlfriend Simone de Beauvoir, and there was all this factional, squabbling, infighting going on among the French intellectuals. But he also wrote a book on anti-semitism which was interesting. It observed how popular and even intellectual attitudes about Jews changed before and during the Nazi occupation. It's interesting.
Robert: Seeger… he's a saint. Pete Seeger's a fucking saint, but I never found his music very interesting. You know, musically he can play the banjo, but he's so political, so deeply, vehemently political — and I agree with his politics completely — but it made his music political; the message was more important than the quality of the music to him. He's a literary musician, you know? But he dedicated himself to getting out there an playing these left-wing, rousing songs to labor unions and strikers, it's amazing they never put him in jail. Well, actually, I think he was in trouble for a while but he never went to jail. Is he still alive? I think he is. I think he's still going! I know someone who recently talked to him and I guess Seeger is very inspirational. He's still very lucid and he talked about the old days. You know, he started all that political campaigning in the '30s, and he started very young with that. He's from an upper-class family with money. I think it was the Seeger family whose maid was Elizabeth Cotton, and one day they found her playing guitar and singing and they went, "Oh my God! This woman is a talented singer/musician!" Somebody, years ago, gave me, as a gift, a huge box set of ten LPs of all of that left-wing folk music done by the folknics, not by the real folk, but the folknics of the '50s and early '60s: the Almanac Singers; Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. It's just totally uninteresting. Real country hillbilly music by deeply ignorant, racist people is much more interesting than that stuff. As I said, I agree totally with their politics, but musically it's really uninteresting. The whole folknic scene, even when it was happening in the late '50s and early '60s, I was never moved by it. I preferred rockabilly. [laughs]
Robert: Peter Max [laughs]... he's a totally fucking jive character. I read an article about him about ten years ago and he was doing these really bad, sloppy paintings, knocking 'em out as quickly as possible and trying to sell them based on his name. But you know, in the psychedelic era, his stuff was all over the place. He was way better known than I was, back in like '68, '69, '70 period. Yeah, Peter Max capitalized on the whole psychedelic art scene in that period; completely jive character. I wonder if he's still alive.
Robert: Michelangelo? That's interesting, because just last night Pete Poplaski and I were looking at a book of reproductions of the Sistine Chapel. I had seen it before, but now they've just restored the place and everything is very bright and clear now. And examining it, Pete and I had a discussion about it, because Pete's into all that Renaissance art, and I was looking at it and it just seemed very mannered and stylized to me and not very interesting. The guy is just like glorifying the male body. It's all about writhing, muscular male bodies. And even the women, they have male bodies with tits pasted on. The guy's not into women, you can tell. He's not into feminine at all. He's not interested in the round, elliptical charms of the female form. No, he's interested in the lumpy, muscular male body. And the whole Chapel is nothing but that. And I couldn't find... there wasn't much of a humanistic element, it's just so mannered. And Pete pointed out, as I was talking to him about it, he said, "It's all about the expression of romantic, religious ideas. It's not about real human beings." So for me, there's no subtle humanity about the expressions or what's going on. It's a very deeply Italian thing. A lot of that Renaissance art is like that to me. I prefer the Flemish and German stuff of that period, you know, it's got much more to do with real life and real human beings. Bruegel, to me, is much more interesting than Michelangelo and a lot of those other Renaissance artists from Italy. Even Leonardo's not that interesting to me, although he was one of the first artists to make very, very detailed, naturalistic drawings and paintings. But he's only marginally interesting to me.
MOEBIUS (JEAN GIRAUD)
Robert: I like his early comic strips. They're very imaginative and very beautifully rendered. He's considered a very important cartoonist here in France. He did these very powerful, imaginative strips that are science fiction kind of stuff. Most of them take place in these fantastic alien environments, with rocket ships and strange creatures, 'n stuff like that, but all beautifully drawn. You know, I finally met the guy, I donno, about five or six years ago. He's dead now. He died of cancer. But we had dinner together and talked and he told me he was inspired by my work. Jesus, I was flattered.
Robert: Well, I read Portoy's Complaint. That's the only thing I've read of his. I read it twice actually. I read it years ago in the '70's and then again recently. It was pretty good. It's about this Jew that's so obsessed with his own Jewishness. He's so hung up about it. And he's funny about it of course, self-deprecating and funny about it while he tries to describe his obsessive attraction to the pristine, blonde, non-Jewish female. You know, the world she comes from and what that represents to guys like him who are second or third-generation Jewish immigrants. Those guys craved that thing so badly, to get out of the Jewish thing and get to that pristine, clean, white, blonde world. [laughs] And he's pretty funny about it.
Alex: Doesn't he go to Israel and he can't get it up with some Israeli girl?
Robert: [laughs] Yeah, some fierce Israeli girl with monolithic legs. I liked that! I like that part of the book. [laughs]
ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
Robert: He's great. He's got short stories, a book of short stories that are really fine, good reading. And a couple of longer novels that are also excellent. Some of the stories are about the old world life in the ghetto. Some stories are about New York, you know, being an alienated Jewish immigrant in New York in the '40s, '50s and '60s. They're good. They almost have a slight mystical bent to them.
Robert: Tragic figure, Linda Lovelace, just tragic. I actually met her in 2001. She came to Paul Morris' gallery in New York. I had an opening there. She came with someone, some jerk who brought along a photographer, and she seemed pretty messed up at the time. I later talked to Diane Hanson who knew a lot about her history. And then I read her book all about how she got sucked into the porno industry by this evil guy named Chuck Traynor. She died a couple of years after I met her.
Robert: He's about the only guy in America who's doing a readable, interesting daily comic strip for daily newspapers. He' s the only one left, as far as I know. I don't know of any others. He's not in very many papers any more, because most people don't get his strip generally. But his strip is still good. Every week I get the whole week's set of strips from the company that sends out the copies to each newspaper. Bill put me on that list, so I read the strips each week eagerly. There's always two or three really funny strips each week. I don't know how he does it. It's phenomenal that he can still keep on doing it each week and still be interesting and funny. There's some kind of genius there. He's one of my pals, Bill Griffith. I met him in the early '70s when he came to San Francisco. I worked with him inArcade and all that. Periodically, I see him every now and then when we go to New York, he and Diane Newman. Periodically, not that often, but whenever we get a chance. They live in Connecticut, in some house out in Connecticut somewhere.
Alex: They're the other cartoon couple.
Robert: Yeah, but they don't actually collaborate like Aline and I do. They could never really pull off that kind of personal exchange, I don't know why. We actually asked them to once, to see if they could do it, maybe to add to Weirdo or something, I can't remember, but they couldn't do it.
Robert: He was a creature of television, kind of like David Letterman. Somebody told me when you work under those bright lights, day after day after day, it does something to people's nervous system.[laughs] I used to watch him. He was a gentleman, you know, old school. He wasn't rude or crude at all. If you watch those old Carson shows you'll see that he's very tactful and skillful at keeping the show moving the way it was supposed to. He was really gifted at that function of a talk show. Letterman has that gift too, although Letterman is a little more of a wise-ass. Carson, I don't know if he was such a funny comedian. I mean he could tell a ha-ha joke, but I don't think that's what made his show interesting. Did you ever see Jack Paar? He preceded Carson. He was the one who popularized the late night talk show. He was so neurotic. He would whine and complain, on the program, about people who would bad mouth him in the press and he would start crying! So, I think he had a nervous breakdown and they just had to take him off and then Carson took over, sometime in the early '60s. The thing about Carson, he was around for decades! How did he do it? What a grind. But I liked watching Carson. But then I stopped watching television when I moved in with Marty Pahls. I didn't watch television from like '63 until '69 or '70. I missed everything that was on television at that time. A lot of people, a little younger than I am, tell me about all this classic television that I missed, all the sit-coms, all that stuff. I watched TV a lot in the late '50s until I left home, like at the end of '62. I watched a lot of television at home. And then I started watching again with Dana in like '70. But when Aline and I first started living together we didn't have a television either. But then in like the mid-'70s is when we started watching again. It was very selective, stuff like Mary Hartman Mary Hartman.
Alex: In the mid-seventies when you started watching TV again, did you ever watch Johnny Carson?
Robert: No, I had stopped watching him by then. It wasn't interesting enough to me. I can only take a limited amount of television, all those commercials 'n shit. I have issues with all of that.
Robert: Well, he started in the late '20s making records. Some of his early records are quite good. He kind of capitalized on Jimmy Rodgers, who was an immensely popular country singer at that time. Actually, he wasn't deep country, he was more tinted toward mainstream, but he was good, Jimmy Rodgers. And just at this time there was beginning to be a popular market for cowboy singers. But Gene Autry doesn't come on as a cowboy right away, he's just another kind of Jimmy Rodgers country singer. And some of his songs that he recorded at this time, in the late '20s, are kind of low-down. I have one song that he does called Black Bottom Blues that he did, with very suggestive lyrics 'n everything. Then he started making these movies in the early '30s. He made one serial called, I don't know, something like Radio Ranch or Gene Autry's Radio Ranch. It was actually kind of interesting because he had this band, this string band, that he sings with and they're actually great. And there's all this kind of quacky science fiction stuff that happens on this Radio Ranch. And then he takes on the cowboy thing, you know, and he becomes this cowboy singer. He had an alright voice, he was a good singer. Like I said, some of his early stuff is interesting. I don't like his later stuff, when he does that cowboy crooning thing, ho hum; Back in the Saddle Again and all that stuff. He had this big country hit in the depths of the depression called That Silver-haired Daddy of Mine, a really schmaltzy song that sold really well. So he just started capitalizing on all that schmaltz-crooning thing.
Robert: Hef! [laughs] There's a great documentary somebody did in 1966 when he was at the peak of his empire — he had the Playboy magazine, which was hugely popular, and the Playboy Clubs going and he was writing this Playboy philosophy — so somebody did this documentary about him. And they weren't out criticizing him or anything, they just wanted to show his whole scene. And the interviewer asked him, "Mr. Hefner, would you consider yourself a genius?" And Hefner is smoking his pipe, he reflects for a couple of seconds and then he takes his pipe out of his mouth and says, "Yeah, I guess I would consider myself a genius." [laughs]. But Hefner... a very cornball guy. Yeah, I guess he had kind of a publishing genius, in that way he was kind of. But he was so Midwestern.
And what he did to Kurtzman, I can never forgive him. You know, when Kurtman left Mad magazine and then Humbug was a failure, he was desperately doing these comic strips for these little magazines like Pageant and Coronet and stuff like that. And Hefner liked his work. And I don't know if he solicited Kurtzman or how exactly it worked, but Denis Kitchen has these exchange of letters between Hefner and Kurtzman where Kurtzman is trying to submit ideas for Playboy. And Hefner's writing back these criticisms that are so demoralizing. Omigod, it was so terrible what he was doing. He knows he's got Kurtzman on a string, you know? And he's just dangling him on a string. And it was so demoralizing for Kurtzman to work for Hefner.
I remember once being in Kurtzman's house and he was working on this Little Annie Fannie strip for Hefner. Kurtzman showed me these things he's gotten back from Hefner, because he had to send, with every strip, these roughs of the strip for Hefner's approval. And Hefner would send back the roughs with a piece of tracing paper over each of the roughs with these little knit-picky blue pencil changes he wanted made. So Kurtzman showed me these, and he'd been drinking a little, and he just started weeping with vexation, literally weeping. He said, "Look at this. Look at what I have to endure with Hefner. Okay, I'm grateful to the man, he rescued me from poverty." Kurtzman had a big house and he had an autistic son that cost a lot of money to take care of, so he needed the money. So he did that Annie Fanny strip. But, what he had to endure from Hefner. That always pissed me off about Hefner. I met Hefner a couple of times. Kurtzman took me and Jay Lynch and his wife Jane Lynch and Skip Williamson to the Playboy mansion when it was still in Chicago. And Kurtzman was very worried about us offending Mr. Hefner. And he told us before we went in, "Please you guys, don't do anything outrageous, Okay? Please don't offend Mr. Hefner." [laughs] So Skip Williamson, who was, at that time, a very rebellious young man, deliberately acted rude and crude, so he didn't get invited back.
Once I got well known in the hippie community, '69 or '70 or something like that, Hefner sent his cartoon editor Michelle Altman to ask me to contribute to Playboy. But I turned it down because I knew what I'd have to go through with Hefner.
Alex: It's not like you had political grievances with Playboy, but more because you didn't want to go through the hassle with Hefner?
Robert: Well, I did have political criticisms of it. I did. And the money was tempting. It was top money at the time. But I just knew I wouldn't have that freedom. Hefner's not going to give you the freedom. Money wasn't that important to me then. I was pretty foot-loose, and you could live pretty cheaply back then. I didn't see any need for great sums of money. In the underground, there was such total freedom, that I was spoiled by that. Yeah, it was really about freedom.
I just couldn't bend myself to those guys. Those guys were so far removed from everything that we had gone through in the hippie culture. That generation, of Hefner and all those middle-aged business people, when they approach you and try and get you to work for them, they're just trying to cash in on the hippie thing. They're trying to cash in and capitalize on that new youth market. And they're so out of it. They just didn't get it. Hefner didn't get it. Kurtzman didn't get it! [laughs] Kurtzman came closer to getting it than Hefner. After Playboy became successful, Hefner had become shielded from the world inside his Playboy mansion, so he was in his own little world that he created. I don't think he really knew what was going on outside the mansion.
The Playboy mansion was a very weird place. I went to this party there with Kurtzman, this cocktail party one night. And it was so stifling. Everybody's behavior was so stilted, and the drinking and, those kind of hedonistic, materialistic guys from the WWII generation. And those bunnies in the rabbit custom? I thought it was grotesque. [laughs] Jane Lynch, already in her feminist stage by the time of the party, confronted these Playboy bunnies. She was like, "How can you bear the humiliation of wearing those costumes, that stupid collar with that tail and those ears?" Of course the bunnies were very offended. They had already made the decision to accept the whole thing for the money and here's this girl telling them it's stupid looking. One bunny just looked at her and said, "You know, the money is really good, Sweetie. It pays well." [laughs] But it was a repellent scene. Sid Caesar, I mean, he was completely out of his mind, just babbling. And these other guys who were there, older guys, they said, "Yeah, Sid Caesar's crazy, just crazy." Yeah, there were a lot of characters around there, but the atmosphere was so stiff and stilted. Even though it was supposed to be all fun and hedonistic and loose sex, it just wasn't like that, at least not for me. Kurtzman used to stay in the mansion in Chicago, and the first thing Hefner would say to him in the morning was, "Hey Harvey, ya get any last night?"