Crumb's comments on the famous and infamous, compiled by Alex Wood.
Over the years, talking with Robert about many different things, I've been surprised by some of the things he likes and dislikes. We all know he loves old music from the early part of the last century and doesn't like rock music. But then he says he likes Tommy James and the Shondells, and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs? So in a discussion in May 2011, I asked his opinion on a list of people in the news past and present. -- Alex Wood, Wildwood Serigraphs
Robert: "When I was a kid, I saw Eisenhower in person in Ames, Iowa when he was running for president in 1952. He came through standing in the back of a car waving to everybody right past our house on Lincoln Way. I saw him. My father told us while Eisenhower was in Iowa campaigning, the mayor in Ames kept asking him, 'What do you think of Iowa? What do you think of Iowa?' And Eisenhower said, 'What do you want me to do, sing it?' Eisenhower - he wasn’t a bad guy, he was just completely overwhelmed by the politics of the time. I remember when he ran against Stevenson in ‘56 -- he ran against Stevenson twice actually -- but Stevenson was a much better politician than Eisenhower. Stevenson was a democrat, a fairly competent guy, and you know, sort of a liberal and everything. But there was a famous photograph of him published in the paper of him sitting with his legs crossed and you could see there was a hole in the bottom of his shoe. That was the end of his run for the presidency when people saw he had a hole in his shoe. [laughs] Also, Eisenhower was the one who warned us about the military-industrial complex when he left office. But at the time, it was only published in the back pages of the newspaper. They didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. But you know, he was on the money with that one."
S. CLAY WILSON
Robert: "Sad case. Good artist, drank too much. Now he’s a wreck. Played Russian roulette with the bottle. It’s sad, tragic."
Robert: "He’s a director, I don’t know much about him. What movies did he make?"
Alex: "Dr. Strangelove."
Robert: "Great movie. Great. Masterpiece. But I don’t like Peter Sellers. I think he was highly overrated in his day. Everybody thought he was great, that he could do all these characters. But I didn’t think he was that funny. I dunno, I didn’t like him that much. I think he really spoiled Lolita. They shouldn’t have let him do his shtick so much in that film. But he was the man of the hour."
Alex: "That’s also Stanley Kubrick."
Robert: "Huh. Yeah, well, that could have been a great movie but Sellers fucked it up. The girl who played Lolita was great. The James Mason portrayal of Humbert sends mixed messages. They couldn’t decide whether to make him sympathetic or a heinous villain."
Robert: "I think he was a good commentator on the late 19th century. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn don’t do that much for me. But his later stuff, he gets more cranky as he gets older. His critique gets more interesting. When I was 15, I read What Is Man? and it made a profound impression on me. It changed my life. It’s all about predestination versus freewill. He was a big believer in predestination. He didn’t think we had any free will. And he puts down religion and everything. I was, at that time, still a Catholic believer when I read that. My brother Charles and I found that book on the floor in an abandoned house along with some other moldy books. So I took it home and read it. Afterward, I told my aunt about it. She was a strong Catholic -- the whole family was Catholic -- no one ever questioned anything. So I told my aunt about it and she said, 'Oh, can I read that? That sounds interesting.' So I lent it to her and about a week later she was over at our house and she said, 'You know that book you lent me? I burned it.' [laughs] So that’s my experience with Mark Twain."
Robert: "Very funny cartoonist in his youth. Did great stuff when he was young -- funny guy. Quite a taciturn guy in real life. It’s hard to get him to talk. Nice guy."
Robert: "Can’t go wrong with the comedy. His early, silent comedy is great stuff. Got run out of America for being a communist."
Robert: "The Kennedys....I have ambivalent feelings about them. They were liberal and they were on the right side in some ways, but in some ways they were just kind of decadent, rich playboys with lots of power. But Bobby, he was really down on the mob, the crime syndicates. I think they might have had something to do with his assassination, I’m not sure."
Alex: "I think the mob had something to do with John Kennedy winning that election. I think he won Illinois because it was fixed by the mob. So he wins, and he puts his brother in as Attorney General and then Bobby goes after them. So of course organized crime has every right to be angry."
Robert: "Every right by their value system."
Alex: "Well, in that case, when you do someone a favor, you expect some kind of return."
Robert: "In politics particularly. And the mob’s way of dealing out justice is to bump the guy off -- just whack him."
Robert: "The music just doesn’t do much for me. I haven’t really played close attention to Mozart’s music. I love the movie Amedeus about him, but the actual music, nnnaaaah. That sort of classical symphony type of stuff doesn’t interest me very much."
LAUREL AND HARDY
Robert: "Great. Love ‘em. One of my favorites. I like them better than Chaplin, actually. Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, they’re right up there at the top for me. I love Laurel and Hardy."
Robert: "I kind of have ambivalent feelings toward Obama. I think he really tries. He’s trying to do the right thing, but he’s just up against it. I read Wendell Potter’s book about the health insurance companies trying to stop health care reform. Wendell Potter was a whistle-blower who worked for Cigna for 20 years as a PR man. And then he dropped out. He said his conscience started bothering him too much so he dropped out of the whole thing. And then he started preaching against the health insurance companies. He was embraced by Obama’s people because of that. They brought him in and he spoke to senate committees. So he got to watch Obama closely and see what he was doing. He said in his book that Obama worked on that project every day for a year trying to fight for that health care reform. The guy worked really hard, and he tried to have the best team around him but he couldn’t bring about any kind of effective health reform. He’s up against such powerful forces. People are pissed that he hasn’t turned things around and saved the world, but, you know, he doesn’t have that kind of power."
TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS
Robert: "Yes! Last great proletarian rock n’ roll band. 1966 -- My Baby Does the Hanky Panky, great record. That to me was the last year there was a bunch of good, proletarian rock and roll hits on the radio. After that it was taken over by the California psychedelic thing. I just didn’t find that as interesting. That was all very middle-class. Once the Beatles became famous, then the middle class began to embrace rock n’ roll and abandoned the kind of middle-of-the-road sound of Bobby Rydell and Pat Boone and all that stuff. And when the middle class embraced it, they cleaned it up, it wasn’t the same. But Tommy James was one of the last bands, and Sam The Sham, he was another one of the last ones: Wooly Bully and stuff like that."
Alex: "Did you like Little Red Riding Hood?"
Robert: "Great, great masterpiece. [laughs] But after that, I started to lose interest in rock n’ roll. The golden age of rock n’ roll was in the 50s, and for me, particularly Rockabilly. I really liked that. A lot of the rockabilly stuff was really wild and kind of scared the bourgeois, scared them."
Alex: "Like Jerry Lee Lewis?"
Robert: "Yeah, great! Great piano player. Little Richard too, excellent piano player but they’re showmen so you don’t get to hear enough piano. But going back to Tommy James, he made a psychedelic song called Crimson and Clover. Remember that? I thought that was pretty good… 'Crimson and clover, over and over…'"
Robert: "Father of his country! [laughs] I don’t know. I don’t know much about George Washington. I haven’t examined him closely. It would be really hard to sift out the hero-worship from the real person, I think at this point. That would be very difficult to do. He was a very big guy, George Washington; big man. They wanted to make him king. Some people wanted him to be our first King of the United States. But he, fortunately, rejected that idea himself."
BOOTS AND HIS BUDDIES
Robert: "Their sound is a little too late for me. They’re a good band, good territory black band from 1936, 1937 -- somewhere in there -- when they made their records somewhere in the South -- Texas, or someplace. They’re good but it’s just a little too swingy for me. I prefer the earlier sound of the twenties. For me, for that kind of music, the cutoff point is about 1933, then it starts to sound too swingy and modern. There are a few exceptions."
Robert: "Love him. I love to watch W.C. Fields. He has his visual jokes that he carried over from vaudeville, you know, where his hat gets caught on his cane and stuff like that. But just his persona; he embodies this American type of the 30s particularly: alcoholic; wheeling and dealing in a very low key way and not very successfully. Have you ever seen It’s A Gift, where he’s a grocery store proprietor n the 1930s? He embodies that certain type of American man at that time. A lot of people my age remember having an uncle or somebody in their family that was like the W.C. Fields character; an alcoholic with a big, bulbous, red nose."
Robert: "He was a guy I had a lot of hopes for, and, you know he’s certainly a lot better than the Republicans who replaced him. But they crucified the guy. They just tormented him to death trying to bring him down. Now he’s got like a quadruple by-pass or something. He’s had it. Bill’s had it. Hillary on the other hand, she’s still going strong. Hillary is a force to be reckoned with. I wonder if she’d be more effective than Obama, I don’t know. But she’s tough. She’s a tough woman."
Robert: "I hate his voice. I can’t stand to hear him sing. I thought some of the songs that he wrote in the mid-60s were kind of clever, with clever lyrics. But I just can't stand to hear him or see him perform. And I think his heart is in the right place a lot of times, you know. Someone told me he was an aficionado of old 20s, old time music, and that he listens to the same kind of stuff I like. Someone told me that. But his own stuff, his own music never interested me that much. It used to irritate me in the mid-sixties when he was worshiped like a god. I thought that was really annoying. I thought his schtick with his whiney voice was really irritating."
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
Robert: "You can’t knock him, y’ know? What can you say bad about him? Nothin."
Robert: "He had a clever little schtick, but, again, highly overrated, as far as I’m concerned. The art world just loves the guy. They still love him to death. One of his lame-ass silk screen prints goes for more money than some original renaissance art."
Robert: "The guy’s not even human. I don’t know how he did it. It’s unbelievable what he did, week after week on those Little Nemo strips. It’s incredible. His son said he was a workaholic, that he didn’t pay any attention to his kids or anything, he just worked all the time. And that’s the only way he could have done those strips, just worked constantly. God, just the conception of those strips, and every week? He did those for years. Omigod, I don’t know how he did it. It’s beyond anything I could even imagine doing. I guess he was a man of his time, you know, people conceived things differently then. It’s like a tiffany lamp. I look at that thing and I can’t even imagine how they did it. Or some ancient Egyptian gold leaf figure on a throne, you know, some pharaoh -- have no idea how they did it. That’s how Winsor McCay is to me. And then guess what? He made his own animated cartoon and drew every single cell himself! How about that?"
Alex: "Aside from Irish McCalla, who was your favorite movie starlet?"
Robert: "A movie star? They didn’t attract me as much as the girls in my high school class. I wasn’t impressed with women in movies as I was with the big-legged girl who sat next to me in my homeroom class, Joanne Plunk. I was much more dazzled by her than any girl in the movies. Because Joann Plunk, omigod, she was built from the ground up! She lived down from the street from me so I would follow her home from school every day. I’d keep a safe distance so she didn’t know I was back there. I always stayed like 20 feet behind her, just watching her walk home! This is like 1961. She wore dresses that were knee length, white socks and tennis shoes, so her legs were out there. Omigod, just watching her walk, with her bouncy step, and her butt bouncing. Omigod. She was a sweet, shy girl, wasn’t very popular or anything. Boys didn’t particularly like her, she was too big. Too big in the bottom. You know, the boys in those days, they liked the ones who looked the most like the girls in the movies, or the girls on American Bandstand. That’s what the boys liked, that’s what you were supposed to like, and that’s what most of them liked. God knows what they liked secretly. I remember telling some kids that I was really attracted to this other big girl, Brigitte Coscarelli. And they just looked at me like I was crazy. So I shut up about that. I never talked about that again. But Irish McCalla, she was something, in Sheena anyway. She really turned me on when I was 12 years old. That was my first sexual fixation of post-puberty. Irish McCalla! I used to go to bed and fantasize about her. Of course, I drew a comic about her, so everybody knows that."
Alex: "How do you spell Joanne’s last name, Plunk?"
Robert: "P-L-U-N-K, Plunk. The closest I ever got to her was playing footsy with her in study hall. That’s the closest I ever came. And for a while she had a boyfriend, and then the guy seemed to drop her and so most of the time she didn’t have a boyfriend. She came from sort of a lower class background. She lived in this modest yellow, wooden house down the street from our house."
Alex: "What was the name of the other girl you played footsy with, the girl who sat behind you?"
Robert: "That was Jeanette Betts. Yeah, she was something too. But I liked Joanne Plunk better. I liked Joanne Plunk and Dolly Hensley. Dolly Hensley was really something!"
Alex: "Where are Joanne and Dolly now?"
Robert: "Yeah, where are they now? But you know, they’re my age, they’re like old ladies now. It’s sad! They’re old grandmas. [laughs]"
Alex: "Probably best if they remain in your mind as they were."
Robert: "That’s right, keep ‘em like that in my memory, right? I’m never going to a class reunion, are you kiddin'? I get invited to class reunions, but I don’t go. In fact, just a month ago I was invited to the class reunion by Nancy Knicely. When I was in 9th and 10th grade, she was just like the sexiest thing walkin’. She was unbelievable. She was this tall, athletic, beautiful girl. Nancy Knicely! And I just got a letter from her inviting me to the class reunion. But I want to remember her that way. I don’t really want to see what she looks like now."