This is the seventh in a continuing series of discussions. In November, 2013, I asked Robert for his comments on another list of celebrities and artists. -- Alex Wood, Wildwood Serigraphs
Robert: Ah yes, Annette. She was the one in the Mickey Mouse Club that all the boys had the hots for because she had tits; very early on she developed tits. She just died recently. And it turned out, she was quite short. Somebody I know met her and said she was very short.
I was not attracted to her. I was actually a little too old when the Mickey Mouse Club first started in 1955. I didn't swallow it and it seemed very patronizing to me. The whole Disney thing was kind of through for me by the time I was, let's see, I was 12 in 1955. So I didn't quite buy into the Mickey Mouse Club. But we liked to watch the old cartoons they showed. But that whole thing with the kids with ears, that just seemed stupid. And the host of the show, this guy Jimmy Dodd, had such a patronizing way of talking to the viewers, which he knew were kids: "M-I-C-K-E-Y, why? Because we like you." Yeah, that was quite repulsive. [laughs] It was awful.
Robert: Allen Ginsberg kissed me once. It was in 1989, before I knew what was going on and I couldn't stop him, he kissed me on the mouth. [laughs]
I like Howl. Howl's great. It's like the beatnik manifesto of the '50s, y' know, it really says it all. It's got that beatnik attitude of that time in America. It's quite eloquent. But after that, he didn't really do anything that struck me as particularly interesting. But he was like a spokesman for the hippies in the '60s too. He would lead the hippies in all those Indian chants. He tried to lead them in the direction of spirituality, an East Indian kind of spirituality with meditation and chanting and all that.
Robert: Lenny Bruce was an interesting case. He was kind of a semi-criminal, a low-life character. There's a biography of him written by a guy named Gold-something [Albert Goldman wrote a biography on Lenny Bruce, and a Jonathan Goldstein wrote another, so I have no idea which biography Robert is talking about.— Alex] and it's pretty interesting. He was a junkie and all that, but he was funny and kind of revolutionary in his time. He used to say, "Don't do schtick." That was one of his mottos. Y' know, you should always try and be original, in life as well as in your performance. "Don't do bits."
They did a movie about him in the '70s called Lenny. It was kinda interesting. Aline and I were in Florida at the time visiting and staying with her grandparents. So we took them to see that movie because we were interested in Lenny Bruce. They didn't know anything about him, but they said, "Yeah, sure we'll go to the movies." Alright, so we go to the movies where they immediately fell asleep about ten minutes into the movie. After, when we're coming out of the theatre, I asked her grandfather Joe, "Joe, what did you think of that movie?" His only comment, as he put his cigar in his mouth, was "Gah-bage." [laughs]
But Lenny Bruce was fucking and hustling these showgirls and chorus girls all the time, because he worked in nightclubs and sleazy places. So yeah, he was busy with those showgirls. He probably did some pimping too. He was pretty sleazy. He was in a couple of grade B movies in the '50s where he plays this really rough character and he's like roughing this one woman up, and it's too realistic.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Robert: Well, I haven't really read that much of his stuff. I read his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He was a pretty crazy guy. I met him a couple of times. He used to hang out at that Mitchell Brothers Theater on O'Farrell Street in San Francisco, which was a strip joint run by the Mitchell Brothers. There was this kind of like Irish-Journalist-Mafia that used to hang around there. He and these other Irish characters from San Francisco who were into journalism there, newspaper guys, they hung around there for some reason, I don't know why. Who's that guy with the eyepatch? He used to write for Ramparts Magazine, investigative journalist, he dug up dirt on the CIA back in the '60s… Warren Hinkle. Anyway, they all hung out there. But Thompson did a lot of cocaine and drank, and then he would go on these long "cocaine raps," ranting and raving. But by the time I met him, y' know, he was already well-advanced to being really fucking out of his mind.
Alex: About what time was that?
Robert: The eighties, early to mid-'80s.
Robert: I think Escher is great. I love that optical-illusion stuff he did. It's very well-executed and ingeniously thought out. he became very popular with the hippies in the '60s, and they sold millions of posters of his drawings, which were kind of psychedelic. For the hippies, it was trippy. [laughs] But they're good. I like him.
Robert: He directed some of my favorite films, like Goodfellas; classic. And King of Comedy, that's a great movie and great social commentary. Yeah, it's got his man DeNiro in it, who's in a lot of his movies. I think Goodfellas is probably the best film about the modern American crime syndicates. Casino was kind of a follow-up to Goodfellas, and I didn't think it was quite as good. Probably Goodfellas got so much praise it kind of went to his head so everybody got together and made this indulgent film. It had it's good parts, it was good, it just wasn't as good asGoodfellas. For one thing, there were too many close ups on DeNiro's face. I just kept wanting the camera to back-off. OK, you think the guy's great looking, but Jesus, OK, it's enough, back-off!
Robert: Well, I liked One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. That was good. I read that. I thought that was an excellent book for that time. And then later he became this hippie guru and got this bus with the Merry Pranksters and all that stuff. But I didn't think he as so interesting after that. And later he became this big Kahuna of this hippie commune up in the Northwest somewhere. But Cuckoo's Nest was great, just excellent. It came from a time when mental institutions were a big thing in America. There were a lot of them, and a lot of people threw their relatives and kids in these mental institutions at the drop of a hat. Back in the early '60s, a lot of the kids my age had been in and out of mental institutions. Their parents just stuck 'em in there if they showed the slightest bit of eccentricity. And they gave them awful treatments like shock therapy, thorazine, and all sorts of horrible drugs. I remember one girl I knew flipped out so I went to see her and they had her locked in this room with all these crazy women. They let me in the room to visit her and locked the door behind me. I sat and talked to her for a while and then when it was time to leave they let me out. Then locked this big metal door with a little glass window in the middle of it and she had her little face pressed up against the window looking out at me from this big metal door. That was the last I saw of her. She was an early girlfriend of mine….the first girl I ever kissed. This is back in 1963. But I knew other people in my age group who were alienated and depressed and their parents would just put them in those institutions. And Cuckoo's Nest kind of came out of that whole thing. And then of course Reagan came along and disbanded a lot of the mental institutions and flooded the streets with crazy people.
You know, Kesey was involved in these LSD experiments when he was quite young. He might have been in the service, I'm not sure. But he was given LSD experimentally. And he wrote about that. It was very early, like in the late '50s.
Robert: Harvey, my pal… my buddy Harvey. I first met him in 1962. My friend Marty Pahls knew him. I first moved to Cleveland and was rooming with Marty in late 1962. Pekar lived a couple of blocks away. He was a record collector, so Marty took me over to meet him. Marty liked to hang out there. Pekar was heavily into modern jazz: bebop and progressive jazz. He used to sit around his apartment and listen to these crazy bebop and modern jazz records and talk about the music. He was the first guy I ever met who used hipster language at that time. I had read Jack Keroak and other beatnik stuff and I thought he was the closest person I had met up until then — I was 19 at that time — that actually embodied that beatnik persona. The way he dressed, talked, and he had these wacky, modernistic paintings on the walls all around his apartment. [laughs] He was a very soulful guy. Then he got married to this horrible woman. She was a very unpleasant person. Harvey was not a very clean guy, his house was always a slob-pit, but his wife was even worse. So his house turned into this God-awful filth-pit. But you know, Pekar, he's the guy who always stayed in Cleveland. He never left. Since he never moved from Cleveland, he basically became the guy who told the story of Cleveland. And he's the kind of person who you admire for sticking with his class allegiance to the working class. Even though he was an autodidact intellectual, his sympathies were working class. He never developed an intellectual style of talking. He always talked in very plain language and I always admired that about him. He was a difficult person though, he had a difficult personality. He was so intense; just coming out of his skin with burning intensity all the time, which could be exhausting. But he was a great comic book writer. I liked drawing his comics, it was enjoyable drawing them.
Alex: Why did you stop?
Robert: Because I wanted to draw my own stuff. He would have been totally happy if I just completely dedicated myself to drawing his comics and nothing else. He had a big ego, and he didn't care if I continued to draw my own stuff or not. And in order to persuade me to draw his comics he would tell me, "Aw Crumb, you're all washed-up; you're finished. It's over for you. You should get on the bandwagon with my stuff — my stuff is really what's happening. My stuff is the hottest thing." [laughs] Yeah, I liked drawing his stuff, 'cuz it was good, you know, story and dialog, but I didn't want to spend all of my time just drawing his stuff. So, he very quickly realized that and got other artists to draw his stuff too. He chased down all kinds of artists to draw his comics. There must have been at least 30 or 40 different artists all together that illustrated his stories, because he didn't draw at all. He never even tried to learn. But he understood comics very well, and the rhythm of comics. He was always an avid comic book reader. Even Marvel comics and all that stuff. He was deeply into comics so he had a feel for how to tell a story in comic book form. But he never made any money at it, he was always broke.Then he got married to his third wife. She wasn't really a very pleasant person either.
Alex: Third wife? What happened to his first wife?
Robert: She left him. [laughs] She took all the money out of their bank account and ran off with some black guy. Never heard from her again. This was way back in the late '60s. They had been together for about five years. But she was nasty, unfriendly, had this shrill, penetrating, whiney voice, "Ha-a-arveee!" Then he married a woman named Lark. I never met her but she was supposedly very nice. But she was trying to have a career in academia and Harvey would embarrass her. They'd go to these academic cocktail parties and Harvey would deliberately antagonize these professors. He thought the whole academia thing was bullshit. So he used to embarrass her and she'd become angry at him until finally she gave up on him. He was too difficult. Then he married his third wife who is a rather difficult woman herself.
Alex: Are you familiar with his appearances on the Letterman show? And that he was kicked-off?
Robert: [laughs] Yeah, that was great. I remember once when the whole audience was booing and he said, "Ahhh shut up. You're all just a bunch a' sheep," or something like that. Finally, they just cut him off. He used to try to antagonize Letterman, try and get him to get real and shed his talk show persona. He needled him about how GE owned the network and how the CEO would dictate programming to NBC. But as he got older, he mellowed a little. The cancer really took a lot of the wind out of his sails. Up until he got cancer, he was really a hyper character.
Alex: When I met him, he seemed to be very appreciative of you and all the help you had given him.
Robert: Yeah, I always appreciated that about him. He'd always praised my work. And it's probably true that my work helped him get his stuff published and out there, my illustrating his stories. That helped, and he appreciated that. When I kept telling him I didn't have time to do any more work for him, he would bribe me by finding rare 78s for me. And he was very resourceful about it. He found really great old 1920s records just around Cleveland.
AL JAFFEE (Mad Magazine Cartoonist)
Robert: Well, I think he did his best work when he was working for Kurtzman at Humbug magazine. That was his best stuff. He wasn't as good before that, and he wasn't quite as intense afterward. Maybe the same could be said about Arnold Roth at Humbug. And Jack Davis and Elder did some of their best work in Humbug. They also did great work in early Mad, during the time when Kurtzman was in charge of it. And Wally Wood… actually all of his best work was done for Kurtzman. Kurtzman, I don't know, somehow he lit some kind of fire under these artists and made them perform at the top of their ability.
Robert: He came into Mad magazine after Kurtzman quit, during the Feldstein era of Mad. I always thought his style was very square. I thought he should have been working for the Jehovah Witnesses Watchtower magazine or something. But because of that, his drawing style was always interesting to me. There was something "unslick" about it, kind of "out of it." Not "in" with it, but an "out of it" artist. And I didn't think his jokes were particularly funny, or anything. I always thought it was odd that he was in Mad. David Berg, a very individual character, an artist who drew very literally, whose style was homely and unartful… skillful but unartful. Interesting.
Robert: Here's a little jewish guy who came from Eastern Europe [at that time Russia] and he wrote these great songs that are so deeply American, White Christmas and Easter Parade. [laughs] "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas." I'm sure he never even celebrated Christmas. He probably celebrated Hanukkah. But in the ‘20s he wrote a lot of excellent popular songs. He was one of many of that generation of Tin Pan Alley song writers: the Gershwins; Walter Donaldson; Dorthy Fields; Jimmy McHugh; DeSylva, Brown and Henderson… there were so many of them. And they just wrote tons of songs in that period, in the 1920s and '30s. That was the golden age for Tin Pan Alley songwriting. But I don't think Berlin's songs were any better than any of the others that I mentioned. And there were so many more. They were all these songwriting teams; one would write the melodies the other would write the lyrics. But I think Berlin was one of the few that did both.
Tin Pan Alley was 23rd Street in New York. Up and down that street there were dozens of songwriting and publishing outfits all with pianos playing away composing songs all day long. Hundreds of songwriters did that. And there were lots of bad songs published too; lots of stupid songs. But there was so much, out of the sheer quantity of all those song came lots of great ones. And not all of them are remembered. Lots of them are forgotten. Some hung on as standards, but many great songs got lost in the shuffle.
Nowadays it's all different. It's not like that anymore. Now they're writing songs that are, to me, non-melodies. I don't get it at all. You can't get the melody in your head. Those old songs like "Ain't She Sweet" or "My Blue Heaven" or something, those melodies were catchy so it gets in your head. You're walking around humming it to yourself. But it's not like that anymore. It's weird.
Robert: Sad case, Stephen Foster. He probably single-handedly jump-started the American popular music business. His songs were so popular that he made many song publishers rich. So then a lot of other guys jumped on the bandwagon and tried to write songs with catchy melodies. I mean, it may have existed before, but it was very low-key before Stephen Foster. This all starts in the 1860s. By the 1870s there are already song mills cranking out songs. You can still find tons of old sheet music from the late 19th century when they just cranked and cranked songs out. But Stephen Foster was the first American songwriter to make hits nationally overnight. Like Oh! Susanna which was a huge popular hit around the country around 1850. Mark Twain complained during his first trip out west about having to hear it constantly, people singing it constantly while he travelled out west.
And he wrote all those sentimental songs: Swanee River, Beautiful Dreamer, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair and Hard Times Come No More. They're beautiful songs. He was a great songwriter, bad alcoholic, died broke.
MUDDY WATERS / BUDDY GUY
Robert: Naaaah, I'm not too interested in Muddy Waters. He was one of the first blues guys to make the electric guitar popular though. That's why people keep referring back to him because he was the first blues guy to use electric guitar. And by doing that he became like a guru to lots of younger, black blues musicians in the '50's, in the Chicago scene and all that. I just read an interesting book by Buddy Guy. You know his work?
Alex: Yeah, but you read a book by Buddy Guy?
Robert: Yeah, somebody sent me this book and it's great. I'm not interested in the music but the book is really interesting. It's an autobiography that came out recently. In the book Buddy Guy writes about meeting Muddy Waters and it was like sitting at the feet of a guru. And Muddy Waters advised him about dealing with the music business which was so fucking hard-assed then. Those black guys just got the blood sucked right out of them by those music business people who were, yeah, probably most of them were Jewish who had the race record labels in those days. Does that sound anti-Semitec? It probably does. Hey, I'm sure that those Jews were no more crooked than the general run of goyish businessmen. It just so happened that Jews tended to get into the entertainment business. T'was ever thus.