This is the sixth in a continuing series of discussions. In June, 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: Well, he directed one of my favorite movies, Chinatown. That was one of the most truth-telling movies I've ever seen. And the screen writer, Robert Towne, never did anything really that significant again. It was one of those exceptional movies where all the forces just came together — good direction, good script, good acting, everything. It was a great story, an excellent story to tell. To my mind, it told the truth about how things work, not only in LA, but everywhere. The character, the rich, older man that John Huston played, at one point in the movie said, "You know, given a certain situation, a man is capable of anything." Great line, great movie all around.
I thought Tess was very good, but I also suspect that Polanski took the opportunity, while he was making that movie, to put that beautiful young actress [Natasha Kinski] through her paces. But I enjoyed it. Some people thought it was flawed because the young man who marries her, who is kind and compassionate, completely changes when he finds out Tess already had a baby with another man. That's it, he just coldly cuts her off and goes away. But I think the problem that people have with that is emotionally you're feeling "Oh no! What a fool! What an idiot! What the hell is he doing? It seems unrealistic that he walks off and leaves her because of that." But we're judging him with our modern liberal moral standards. A guy from Yemen or Saudi Arabia would completely understand. They would probably think, "Hey, he's not going to cut her head off, so he's not that bad." [laughs] So, Victorian morals being what they were, I don't know if the story is that flawed.
Robert: [sings] "It's Howdy Doody time." My parents got a TV set in 1948 and that program was already on by then, I believe. I watched it regularly when I was very small. The main thing I remember about it was a sense of the grotesqueness of the marionettes. I don't think they came across to small children the way they were meant to, the way the adults intended it. It just seemed strange and bizarre. Clarabell the Clown and Buffalo Bob Smith, they were just strange to a small child. But they had this regular feature everyday called the “Scoope-a-doodle,” which showed old silent movie comedies. [laughs] I remember one was called "The Three Tons of Fun,” which featured three really fat guys doing slapstick. When I was five and six years old I found that stuff really fascinating. Those silent comedies, there was so much crazy action, it was kind of thrilling for me. Aline actually got to be in the Peanut Gallery on the Howdy Doody Show in the early '50s when she was about six years old. She said seeing it live was a big eye opener for her, it was a moment of revelation. She saw how seedy and sleezy everything was behind the scenes, not at all like it was watching it on TV. She said you could see that the seat of Bob Smith's pants were threadbare and dirty. She said as soon as the cameras were off he stopped grinning and he would assume this scowl on his face. He wasn't particularly nice to the kids. [laughs] The whole thing just looked seedy in real life. She could see the flaws; the dirt and the grime that wasn't on camera.
SING ALONG WITH MITCH
Robert: I hated that. I couldn't stand Mitch Miller. I was already in my teens when that was on. It was just repulsive to me. You know, earlier, in the late '40s and early '50s, Mitch Miller was a dominant figure in the popular music business. I think he worked for Columbia Records. He arranged, organized and often decided who would record and what they would record. And he had a penchant for corny novelty songs, so there was a big rash of these cornball songs in the late '40s and early '50s. Mitch had a lot to do with that. That doesn't include county & western or race music or polka music or anything ethnic, just mainstream, called MOR (“middle of the road”) popular music. But he hated rock n' roll when it started. The people who dominated the music business in the post-war period, they all hated rock ‘n roll. They just hated it. And they resisted recording it and putting it on any major labels until they saw that the small labels like Sun were making so much money they finally said, "Well, I guess we gotta get in on this rock n' roll thing."
Robert: Well, I never liked him. He was much too bland for me.
He was always trying to consciously clean up teenage music. He would do covers of these rough tunes, some of them originally recorded by black people, and clean 'em up and make them digestible for the parents of teenagers. It was important that the parents should approve. I remember as a teenager, and I don't know why, but I remember going with other members of my family to see a movie called April Love. I think that was in 1957. And in that movie Pat Boone is a member of a gang of guys who are all very clean cut, well-dressed, frat-boy types. And there's this one guy who wants really badly to belong to the gang, this geeky guy with glasses, who's the butt of all the jokes in the movie. He's the guy I identified with. [laughs] Yeah, the pathetic geek, and they make fun of him throughout the entire movie, mercilessly humiliating this geeky guy with glasses all because he wants to join the gang. But he's not good looking, he's goofy and doesn't act right so they just make fun of him and play jokes on him. He's not a main character, he's just an incidental, comic relief character. Yeah, April Love just made me hate Pat Boone and those kind of guys, those clean cut, frat-boy guys; always hated those types. Sometimes certain politicians remind me of that type of guy… George Bush, Mitt Romney, yechhh.
J. EDGAR HOOVER
Robert: A couple of years ago, I got a copy of the book he wrote in the '50s called Masters of Deceit, about the communist infiltration of America. It's just unbelievable. He just makes up these paranoid fantasies off the top of his head. But he could get away with it in the mid-fifties because it was the McCarthy era and people were willing to buy that line of crap. It was an incredible thing to read, Masters of Deceit. [laughs] Hoover started out very young and I think, way back after World War I, he was part of the Creel Committee who were trying to run all of the socialists out of America. I think he made a name for himself for being very active in that. And I think when they founded the FBI, he was the first head of that and remained the head of it for what, almost 50 years. That's a long time. He was a twisted dude. He also hated the Kennedys. And he thought that Martin Luther King Jr. was getting his orders from Moscow. He hated the Kennedys for just having King over to the White House and talking to him. Some people suspect that Hoover gave his tacit consent to the Kennedy assassination. They don't think he actively participated in it, but some people suspect that the FBI was involved, but I don't know.
THE GRATEFUL DEAD
Robert: I've known lots of Deadheads, people who just follow the Grateful Dead and go to all their concerts, collect tapes and CDs of all their concerts, and trade with each other so they can listen to every concert, but I just don't get it. I talked to a couple of people who were Deadheads and they said when you're at a performance and you're high, like on LSD, it seems like the band is playing just for you. It seems deeply personal, and they're playing just for you. But I never paid any attention to their music. As far as I was concerned it was a big nothin'. I just don't get what it's about. Recently, I just looked through a book called The Wit & Wisdom of Jerry Garcia. It's like a book of quotes from him. These quotes didn't make any sense to me. I was like, "What? What is he saying? What?" They were completely non sequitur. What the fuck? [laughs] But maybe if you're a Deadhead, you get it. Who knows.
Robert: Now you're talkin'! Very under-appreciated American composer, I think. He wrote all those themes for the Hal Roach comedies that you hear in the background of Laurel and Hardy or The Little Rascals. They got stuck in my head when I was a kid, and they still go through my head, those themes from those comedies in the early '30s. He wrote, composed, arranged and recorded them. He did it all. And he was a guy who liked to work behind the scenes, so his name is seldom ever seen. He only made one commercial recording for the Victor Company. It's really too bad he didn't make more. And no one has ever found any discs or sound on film of his music for Hal Roach without the voice soundtrack over the music. So the only place
Alex: The one recording that he did make, do you have that as a 78 record?to hear his music is in those comedy movies. And that's really a shame, because they're really great musical compositions. There's like about a dozen of them that are just tops.
Robert: Yeah, I do. It was made in about 1930: Leroy Shield and the Hollywood Orchestra. And it's the same band he used to record the Hal Roach stuff. You can hear it. It has that very familiar sound, probably done in the same studio. He worked for Victor for years as kind of an A&R man, as an arranger and studio/accompanist. And he probably had something to do with the arrangements for some of the dance bands that recorded for Victor in the '20s. But he was so behind the scenes that he's hard to locate, he's hard to find. And there's very little information about his life. After the Hal Roach period, which lasted until '36 or '37, he went to work for NBC as an orchestra arranger for radio programs. And he did that until he died in the '50s. It seems that he was a mild-mannered guy. There are a couple of photos of him and he just looks like a guy who you wouldn't remember if you saw him on the street. [laughs] A couple of people have attempted to record modern versions of his music by reproducing, as carefully as possible, what you hear in those films without the voices over it. One Dutch guy took great pains to actually try to splice together the sections of the music that don't have voices over them. But he couldn't do it. He was forced to use some parts that have voices on them. But then he used that to have his band re-record the songs. I guess he found someone to make the arrangements based on listening to those, and then have his band play them. But I think the best modern versions of those songs are done by a band in New York called Vince Giordanno's Nighthawks. He plays a lot of those Leroy Shield tunes and does a great job with 'em, really brings them back to life.
Alex: Is Vince Giordanno still making music?
Robert: Yeah, you can go see them in New York. They play old dance band arrangements from the '20s and '30s and it's thrilling to witness, a profound experience. They play in this seedy club right off Times Square, in the basement of the Edison Hotel. It's never packed with people, kind of a specialized audience. I always try and see them whenever I'm in New York. And I've talked to Giordanno and he's really obsessed with that old music. He's got something like 50,000 old orchestra arrangements from that period. He's a fanatic, and he's the best, the best at reproducing the dance music of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Robert: Well, it had a huge effect on me. It wasn't all positive.
Alex: I read an article in The Atlantic about some fellow who hit his head diving into a pool and it changed his brain and all of a sudden he can play piano like never before. It seemed to open up new doors in his brain. I'd say LSD is one of those things that's so powerful that it's bound to have a negative as well as a positive effect on you. It's like the old, ancient tradition of the powerful being that you wrestle with in the night, as Jacob did in Genesis. This being is called an "angel" in the bible, but it's basically a dark, power entity. So Jacob comes out of the battle with the entity as an ally, his name has changed to Israel, he's a changed man, he's acquired powers but now he's also permanently crippled. That theme exists in many different cultures. You take something and it might give you revelations but it might also leave you a little mentally impaired in some ways. It's almost impossible to measure or outline in specific ways, but I think it did that to me anyway. I'm gradually, over the decades, recovering from the negative effects of taking LSD. It sort of impaired my ability to cope in a practical sense with just living and surviving. When your mind is blinded with this other-worldly experience, that makes you see the whole of life in a completely different and larger kind of way, it makes your everyday life of just struggling to make it seem like a sort of sham. The first time I took LSD was on a weekend and that Monday I had to go to work at American Greetings. This was in June of '65. As soon as I walked in there, the whole place seemed so artificial and cardboard. I thought, "What am I doing here? What's everybody doing here? This is absurd. This modern world... the conventional reality is completely ridiculous." And that's what caused all those hippies to wanna drop out and go back to living in nature which seemed more real, genuine and authentic; what humans are supposed to be doing. Instead of living in cities with cars and going to some dreary, meaningless job every day just to earn this money that you put in this bank. Then you go to the market with this money and you buy groceries which you eat, and then you get up and go to work the next morning... it just seemed insane. [laughs] Not to mention the politics and the threat of nuclear holocaust. All the leaders and politicians were crazy and totally discredited. There was no longer any possible or reasonable argument they could present to you once you had taken LSD. [laughs] But about the negative aspects, I took very questionable kinds of LSD also. Some of it was speedy, unpleasant, and sometimes very abrasive. One time, in late '65 I took some stuff that made my brain go fuzzy for six months. But then, six months later, the next spring, I took LSD and the fuzz went away.
Robert: Yeah that's right. And then they hit their head again and it goes away. The mind, the brain, it's all very mysterious, we don't really know how it works. But I took lots of weird drugs. I was young and impetuous and played recklessly with my nervous system as a lot of young people do. That drug that made me fuzzy, the guy who gave it to me called me the next day and asked me, "Did you take that drug yet?" I said, "No." He said, "Don't take it. There's something wrong with it." I said, "Hmmm, OK." But that night I took it anyway! And sure enough, it started to come on with all the psychedelic visions and all of a sudden everything went fuzzy, like when old TVs would go fuzzy and make that static noise. And during the following six months, it was very difficult for me to cope with reality. I would be just sitting on a bus or on the couch at Marty Pahl's place and if no one was talking or I wasn't engaged, my mind would just drift into these electrical visions that were just crazy. But it was during that time that I created all those cartoon characters and that whole cartooning style that I borrowed from the '40s, it all came out of that period. Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, The Old Pooperoo, Angelfood McSpade, the Snoid — they all came from that period. I kept seeing Snoids everywhere, giggling at me and then running behind things. I was in like this state of delirium. It was very, very weird. But, you know, my ego was shattered, and that shattering of my ego allowed these new visions to impose themselves on me without any interference. So of course it did me a favor, in a way. It was like shock therapy.
Alex: What were the positive effects?
Robert: Well, you're basically knocked off your horse on the road to Damascus by this powerful visionary experience. It's like Jesus just spoke to you or something, it's so powerful. It just opens up and expands your mind. The first time I ever took LSD was the Sandoz pharmacy version of it. My first wife, Dana, had gotten it from a psychiatrist in 1965, when it was still legal. It was made illegal the following year, in 1966. It's too bad they did that, because when they made it illegal, all serious, scientific and professional experimentation with that drug suddenly came to a halt. I suppose bad things could have come from more research by the military or CIA, so who knows. But when I first took LSD, I was so depressed, I thought, "Oh, what the hell. I'll try this." I mean, I was thinking about suicide, so the decision to take it was somewhat nihilistic.
Alex: Do you remember the last time you took it?
Robert: Yes I do. It was in the summer of 1973. I used to get sick on LSD often, sick to my stomach and throw up, so I remember I was in Potter Valley where we lived and I was outside on the ground, on my hands and knees, throwing up, and a voice in my head said, "You don't need to do this anymore." [laughs] "You've done this enough. You're not going to learn anything new from this. You don't need to punish yourself anymore." I never took LSD again.
Alex: Speaking about quitting LSD, didn't you stop smoking pot soon after?
Robert: It was about two years later that I completely stopped smoking marijuana. It took a long time for me to figure out how to refuse it, because everybody around me was smoking morning, noon and night. Everybody! They lit up first thing in the morning and then passed it to you without even saying anything to you. It was just assumed that you and everybody there would smoke it. It took a long time for me to figure out a reason to refuse it, because everybody else was doing it. But it was making me paranoid, and getting “high” was becoming increasingly unpleasant. And if I got stoned early in the day, I'd think, "Well, another day and I'm not going to get any work done." [laughs] "Forget about getting anything done, too stoned." I had to stop.
Alex: Do you drink wine?
Robert: Not any more, no. About 1996. The first five years we lived in France, I drank wine because, again, everyone in France did. There were so many times we'd be at dinner, especially when we were with people who had money, they'd impress you by putting a fancy bottle of wine on the table. And to refuse this, this generous offer, you're refusing their offer of their best wine. I remember Michael Wolf, a real connoisseur, saying, "You can't NOT drink this. This is such fine wine. It would be too sad and stupid for you not to enjoy this incredible, fine wine. It's not going to hurt you, you'll enjoy it…" So how could I resist that sales pitch? So, OK, alright, alright, I did that for about five years, you know, drinking wine with dinner. I didn't drink a whole lot, but I just got sick of the alcohol effect. I had to stop. I didn't like the effect, even just one or two glasses. It made me feel sleepy, it made me feel dull and stupid.
Alex: Does the same thing to me. But some people, it's like rocket fuel, it's like drinking a cup of coffee or something.
Robert: Exactly. Aline's like that. She really enjoys drinking and it's very, very hard for her to resist. She used to drink a lot and get very drunk, but then later she'd drink less and just get very jovial and lose her inhibitions. But it never had that effect of me. No amount of alcohol could make me lose my inhibitions. I could be throwing-up or staggering around and still feel acutely self-conscious. I would just feel embarrassed that I was so drunk. I would try and act as sober as I possible could. It wasn't fun. I didn't enjoy it. I realized my speech was slurring. I was saying stupid things and not comprehending clearly, not being able to think clearly. There was nothing about that that I liked. The first couple of sips of wine would make you feel like something changes, like there's a subtle alteration in reality the first couple of sips that's almost enlightening. But that's it, that lasts about 5 minutes. After that it's all downhill, so it's not worth it to me. I try to be as clear as I possibly can. Clarity is something I greatly aspire to; lucidity, clarity, presence of mind in every situation. I try. It's hard, but I try. You can cloud your mind with food too. I eat a lot of starch. I'm very addicted to starchy food like noodles and bread and stuff like that. If you eat a lot of that it kind of dulls your mind. Sugar's not great. I eat sweets. I'm very impressed by people who can eat a strict, healthy diet of vegetables and stuff like that. That amazes me. I don't know how they do it.
Robert: I don't like Orson Welles. I don't like him as an actor or as a director. I think he's pretentious, full of himself. I don't understand why some people are so impressed by that guy. The most entertaining Orson Welles thing I've ever heard was some outtakes from a radio commercial that he was doing. And he's really in a bad mood and he's insulting the producers and technicians in the studio and telling them, "This is a lot of shit I hope you know." One guy says, "Mr. Welles, could you try that again?" and Welles says, "Who are you? One more word out of you and I’ll have you fired." So that was the best thing I ever saw of Orson Welles.
Robert: Eaaaah. Not a big fan. Kind of a one joke guy who found a gimmick and just kind of stuck with it.
Robert: That was one of the first shows we watched on TV when I was a little kid. It was called The Toast of the Town. It was basically just Vaudeville variety transferred to television. You had all these washed-up vaudevillians who were desperate
to get on the Ed Sullivan show. Their last hope of getting a paying gig was to get on the Sullivan show. He had acrobats, comedians, puppeteers and plate-twirlers, all that stuff. He had some whacky acts on there. I would love to see some of that stuff again. I wonder if it’s preserved anywhere. I remember these three French comedians, I don't know if they were brothers or what, but they were a whacky act. They had this woman piano player, Miss Seymour, and they would all pile on her, it was kinda funny. And he had Señor Wences who made this little puppet with his hand, he drew eyes and mouth on his hand and put a little wig on it. He was great; stuff like that. Sullivan himself was kind of a stiff, and there was an army of comedians who did imitations of him. There was one guy who practically made his whole career out of imitating Ed Sullivan. Sullivan was originally an entertainment newspaper columnist, way back in the '30s. But he got in on the ground floor of television, The Toast of the Town. I remember the theme song. [sings the theme then laughs]
Robert: Although he was from the early Renaissance period, he's not in the same boat as the early Italian Renaissance painters -- entirely a different school of art. I think he's coming from a more narrative art that you see in the earlier period of Medieval illuminations and manuscripts. You know, they drew little fantasy creatures around the edges of the text and everything. There were other guys doing similar things as Bosch in his time, but he was the best at it so now he's the only one you ever see. I went to a show in Rotterdam featuring Bosch's work about ten years ago. There was a room next to the Bosch exhibit where they put some artist's work who they considered to have been influenced by Bosch, and they included one of my pieces in there. And one of the curators said, "We'll get you into the show. It's a big hit and it's really crowded, and there's a long line to get in, but we'll get you past the line and get you in." So we show up at the museum and there's about 100 people waiting in a line, standing there for a couple of hours. But we just walk in the back entrance, you know, and so now we're in the rooms where Bosch's work is, and they're all very small pictures. And the people are four deep in front of each painting. I just gave up on that. I'm not going to push my way through this crowd to look at Bosch paintings. I'll just look at 'em in a book. So I just went into some other rooms, and one room had works done by Bosch contemporaries who were painting similar stuff. Some of it was great also. It was enlightening, because then you could see that Bosch didn't invent this whole genre, he's just part of a general movement of that time: a kind of narrative art with these crazy surrealistic images. Yeah, Bosch was very imaginative and he took it to new heights that maybe these other guys hadn't taken it to. But there was one thing that I really loved in this other room, these things called Fools Dishes. They were just wooden plates hanging up on the wall, a line of them. They had paintings in the middle them, of Bosch-like creatures, imaginative whacky stuff, and then some text around the image which was a kind of rhyming joke in Flemish or whatever so I couldn't read it, written in gothic text on a white background. They were so beautiful. I thought, "Oh man, I'd love to have one of those, one of those Fools Dishes." But, they're from the 1400s so they're very valuable. You know, you could probably buy one of those Fool's Dishes for less than you'd pay for a signed Andy Warhol silk screen print of Marilyn Monroe.