This is the third in a continuing series of discussions. In March 2012, I asked Robert for his comments on another list of celebrities and artists.
Robert: "I think I once wrote that I envied Picasso, because he was the type of artist who didn’t let anything stand in the way of his art. He would just slam the door on his wives, his girlfriends, his children – anybody, when it was time to do his art. I always envied that about him. Also his powerful, penetrating, hypnotic way with women. I envied that about him too. I wish I could be an artist like Picasso. And I admire his work. too. I think he did great work."
Robert: "You know, I was very inspired by Timothy Leary in the mid-Sixties, by the things he wrote about taking LSD, and all that. It inspired me to take LSD, and a lot of other people too. He was like the evangelist of LSD. But then later, I thought he kind of went crazy. All that government persecution – them chasing him and imprisoning him and then his escape, and all that. He had a big ego too, a huge ego. All of that kind of made him crazy. “I saw him, when was that? It must have been sometime in the late ’70s. He came to U.C. Davis to give a talk there. I went to see him. His speech was interesting, but when he finished, this guy came out on the stage and led him away as if Leary was a patient from a lunatic asylum or something; led him away by the arm. “Earlier in the ’70s, I did this comic of him with Aline where I made fun of him. And he reacted to that very negatively. He saw it and wrote a very angry letter to Co-Evolution Quarterly, where I was doing comic strips, and said I was one of the most negative people in America, a very bad, negative influence. [laughs] “I finally got to meet him in person at a party somewhere in San Francisco just a couple years before he died. It was a friendly exchange, but at that point he was being guided around by this guy who was taking care of him. He was pretty far gone. He was really out there in the twilight zone; too much LSD, probably."
VINCENT VAN GOGH
Robert: "Van Gogh? Interesting case. He kind of reminds me of my brother Maxon: this crazy artist who was extremely dedicated to his work, but a very difficult person to get along with. I remember reading about him that he would be in conversation with people at a cafe or something and he would spout his theories and ideas and wouldn’t accept any disagreements from other people. He was very argumentative and had a hard time socially. He was socially inept, and neurotic, a crazy guy.”
Alex: "Do you enjoy his work?"
Robert: "Yeah, I like his paintings. He’s not my favorite artist, but I like his stuff, yeah. He did some beautiful work. Of those late 19th century French artists, I really like Lautrec, he also did great work. I don’t like Cezanne, don’t like Matisse very much. I don’t like that pointillist guy, Seurat, very much."
Robert: "Well, before I did that book on Kafka, I had never read him and didn’t know anything about him. But once I took that book project on, then I had to read all his stuff. And then I really got to like him. And while working on that project, I felt a very close kinship with Kafka. It was very strange. I started feeling deeply connected to Kafka somehow. Something I hadn’t expected at all. He died in 1924, very young."
Robert: "You know, he was probably the only hero I had in my youth. The only person I looked up to in that way, where he was a mentor. So when I met him, when I was around him, I was always kind of obsequious/fanboy/worshipful, which got on his nerves but he laughed it off. I was so profoundly flattered that he liked my work. I think that really was a great encouragement for me. I was quite young when I first sent him some of my Fritz the Cat cartoons. He really liked ’em. He asked me to send him more. I still have that letter; 1964, I was twenty-one. And then he actually invited me to come and work with him on Help magazine in the summer of ’64. I was thrilled. So I worked with Terry Gilliam, who was the assistant editor at Help magazine. Working with Harvey, for me that was a great experience, a great moment.
"And then I, you know, hung out with Kurtzman for years after that. I would go to his house whenever I was in New York and stuff like that. I would have dinner with his family and talk about the profession and all. It was very interesting. I feel very fortunate that I knew Kurtzman that way."
Alex: "You mentioned Terry Gilliam, the same man who later worked with Monty Python?"
Robert: "Yeah, and then later became a film director. But I worked with him in ’64 on the Photo Funnies that Kurtzman was doing. Then I got to know him and he was a funny guy. We had good times together. Shortly after that he left for England and never came back.
"I ran into him years later. When Terry Zwigoff was trying to raise money to do the Crumb film, he managed to persuade me to go down to LA with him and take these meetings with people to try and raise money for the film. It was awful. It was really very uncomfortable. But we were at Fox Network, the television studio which, at that time, was run by Barry Diller. We were in the lunch room trying to meet with some guys from Fox, trying to raise money – very awkward – Matt Gruening might've been at this meeting -- and Terry Gilliam was there visiting from England. I saw him and he saw me and we struck up a conversation. There we are talking, you know, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you in years, blah, blah, blah.’ I think this was in the late ’80s, like ’89. So Terry Zwigoff is standing there and I introduce him to Gilliam as my friend who’s trying to raise money to do a film about me. And Zwigoff said, ‘Yeah, can you help me out? Can you contribute some money?’ So Gilliam reaches in his pocket and pulls out some change and says,‘Hope this helps.’” [laughs]
Alex: "Is it true that you met Jim Morrison?"
Robert: "Yeah, just once briefly. There was this Beat Generation poet in San Francisco named Michael McClure who had put on this like weird, avant-garde play in the mid '60s. He was well known. I forget what the exact circumstances were, but he brought Jim Morrison over to my house one day. I think I was still living with Dana at the time, but I don’t remember if she was there. S. Clay Wilson was there. But Morrison, he seemed really over the hill by then. It wasn’t too long before he died. He just seemed like a kind of puffy-looking, overweight guy who was burned-out from too many drugs. He just sat in the corner kind of mumbling. [laughs] "
"He was wearing this greasy, suede jacket with that fringe hanging off the sleeves. He had greasy, long hair. He did not look like the adonis that you saw in the photos a couple years before. But you know, that kind of worship that he received, when you’re young, it’s really hard to survive intact. He probably took too many drugs, but I don’t know. I don’t know what his problem was. He didn’t seem brilliant or anything to me. He didn’t have any insight or anything interesting to say. He just seemed like the typical hippie you would see on Haight Street at that time, mumbling about the drugs and shit, ‘Yeah man, I grooved on 600 mikes the other night, man.’” [laughs at his impersonation of a Haight Street hippie]."
Robert: "Love ’im, love his writing. He was a very difficult guy to hang out with in person, but on paper he was great. One of the great American writers of the late 20th Century."
Alex: "You spent a little bit of time with him?"
Robert: "A little bit, not much. Yeah, when he was in social situations, he desperately wanted to numb himself with alcohol. He was very uncomfortable around people; a very solitary guy basically. He wanted to get laid and all that but... [starts laughing] The last time I saw Bukowski, he came to this party in San Francisco, it was a poetry reading. And these two women that I knew (Susan and Jane, I actually did a comic strip about them,) they just kind of closed in on Bukowski. One was talking to him in one ear and the other was talking to him in his other ear. He was standing there with a beer bottle in each hand and getting drunk as fast as he could. And the last moment I saw him, they were leading him off to the bedroom. That’s the last time I ever saw Bukowski."
Robert: "I love Burroughs also; a great writer. But his best writing is his straight-ahead prose. He wrote all this crazy fantasy stuff, which I think he was encouraged to do by this other beatnik writer, Brian Gyson, who, for some reason Burroughs admired. Gyson was, I think, a jive-ass, bullshit kind of guy. Burroughs, I think he lacked confidence in his own writing, because when he wrote straight prose it didn’t sell well. When he wrote Junkie, and that came out, it didn’t sell well in the beginning. And then he wrote this other book, Queer, around the same time in the early ’50s and he couldn’t even get that published. That wasn’t published until the 1980s. And Queer is a great book. Both Junkie and Queer are great. They’re both written in this very dry, prose style. And his little thin book called the Yage Letters, which were letters he wrote back to Allen Ginsburg while he was in South America looking for this psychedelic Yage plant. That’s a great book; great stuff. But the problem is, there’s not enough of that, not enough of his straight-ahead prose. He just didn’t think it was any good because he either couldn’t get it published or it didn’t sell. So then he wrote this gimmicky thing called Naked Lunch, which is mostly fantasy stuff and not very interesting to me, and that sold well. He made his reputation on Naked Lunch.
"He was a very eccentric character; very eccentric ideas and thoughts. He tried all kinds of strange, avant-garde psychotherapies. He was into psychic experimentation. He built himself an orgone box based upon the theories of Wilhelm Reich. He later got involved in Scientology and had this E-meter and used it as a way to psychically clear himself. He said it was his electrical Ouija board. [laughs] He tried other stuff too, like out of body experience. I can relate to all that stuff because I’m interested in all that fringe, psychic experimentation also. But he was very serious about that stuff.
The sad thing about Burroughs, the tragic thing. was he abused himself so badly with substances. It’s amazing that he was still a very sharp thinker into his late years. His intellect was still pretty good even though he'd used drugs and heroin– and he didn’t stop that until he was about 60 or something–and then he became a bad alcoholic. I heard these tapes of him giving recitals, reading his stuff to audiences, and he’s so drunk you can barely understand him, he’s slurring his words so badly. It’s really sad. Still, he lived until his mid-80s. He was a tough guy. He appeared to be kind of wimpy, but he was tough."
Robert: "I certainly admire his work and I really like him as a person. He’s one of the most persistent cartoon workers; he’s been at it for, what, 45 years. He works hard at it. Yeah, he’s created his own unique world, his comics reveal a very strong personal vision. You have to be attracted to his vision or forget it. If you can’t dig his world, you’re not going to enjoy his work."
Robert: "I remember when Nixon was elected President in 1968, people of my generation couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe that Americans could be so stupid to elect that knave as President. And then, in ’72, they elected him again for a second term. Oh my God! He was such a sleazy opportunist, and it was obvious to so many of the people in my generation. If you were serious about examining the political situation at the time, it was pretty evident that Nixon and Kissinger were a couple of scoundrels. And then when those tapes came out, to hear them talk, oh my God, they were so sleazy, the two of them. [laughs] It's actually shocking to hear them talk when they were alone, in private. "And now they’re trying to whitewash Nixon's reputation, and pump him up and make it look like he did great things, like he went to China and blah, blah, blah. And Reagan too. I find that so disgusting when they try and pump those guys up and make more out of them then they were. Reagan, he was just a mouthpiece for General Electric and then later for the right-wing corporate agenda."
Robert: "I never could get interested in that comic strip. What’s it called? [Doonesbury] I can’t remember the name of it. I just never could get interested in it. I could never read one of his strips to the end. Those sleepy-eyed characters, I just found the drawing style so annoying I couldn’t even read it. It just puts me off."
Robert: "Sad case, very sad case. She tried to act like she was hard and tough, but she wasn’t at all. She was soft and vulnerable. She drank a lot, and got a lot of bad advice. She was surrounded by vultures and vampires and scoundrels, and they just did her in. She finally ended up face-down in her own vomit alone in some hotel room; too much heroin and alcohol, 27 years old."
Alex: "You once said, “Fame is what killed Janis Joplin."
Robert: "Yep, it did. Fame killed her. She couldn’t handle it. It was awful. The last time I saw her alive she had just bought this big fancy redwood mansion somewhere in Marin County. She had this big housewarming party and she invited me and Wilson. So we show up and there are hundreds of people there. And I didn’t even get to talk to her because, guess why? Because she had this circle of people around her that was impenetrable. A circle around her so tight, I could only stand on my toes and wave to her and she waved back and that was it. That was the last time I saw her.
"Gilbert Shelton knew her when she was completely obscure in Texas, when she was still singing old time music. She was great at that! Gilbert played these tapes for me once of Janis singing with this country band, and it fit perfectly with her style, I thought. Because she’s a real redneck shouter, you know. But much later, after Big Brother and Holding Company, I think she was getting some bad advice in the music industry. They wanted her to sound more like, you know, Aretha Franklin, or I don’t know, somehow more sophisticated and black or something. But she still screamed and hollered because that’s what the audience liked. And she really wrecked her voice doing that.
"When I first met Janis in the spring or summer of 1968, she was already a big deal in the Bay Area, I don’t know about the rest of the country. But it was easy to be around her. She was a regular gal, you know, and she was kinda homely. I mean, I was always extremely intimidated by beautiful women, and since Janis was like this plain, regular gal, she wasn’t intimidating to be around at all. I didn’t see her all that much. She liked to drink too much, and get high too much. She hung around this group of girls – not when I first met her, but like a year or so later – this group of women who were really hard-assed and scary. They sort of attached themselves to her and they were into, you know, hard partying and drinking. They were sort of rough and tough and challenging, a little bit feminist but with a tough girl attitude. Like, ‘What can you show me? What kind of man are you? Can you out-drink me? I bet you can’t. I bet you’re just a pussy.’ That kind of thing. They were kind of intimidating. There was this one girl named Sunshine. She was a hard case. Another one named Pattycakes. [laughs] And Janis had this other friend who was kind of her bodyguard, this big girl who looked rather masculine, but she was the nicest one actually. She was sort of Janis's valet after she got famous. But these people just attached themselves to Janis like leeches. But that's what happens when people get famous. And Janis, she was kind of innocent, she didn’t know what was going on completely. She was young and naive, insecure and all that stuff. But you had to like her because she was very vulnerable kind of person. Not a tough person really. But you know, like I said, she tried to act tough, but she really wasn’t. But those other people around her, they were tough, hard cases; hustlers, hangers-on, opportunists."
Robert: "Great! Great, those silent things he did. Wonderful! I can’t believe that he could do those stunts. It’s funny, it’s hilarious, it’s action-packed, those things are incredible. They couldn’t even do that now. Nobody can do what they did back then in the silent days, in the early and mid 1920s. It’s miraculous to watch, and funny at the same time. The guy’s hilarious."
Robert: "My pal, my good pal. I just heard from him and was happy to hear that he’s working, that he has work to do, he’s getting paid some money. Hollywood is very tough, you know? You’re as good as your last film, and if you don’t come up with something that someone thinks will make money, they won’t put up the money and then poof! you're chopped liver. For years, when he wasn’t able to get any of his projects off the ground, I tried to persuade him to go back to where he started and raise money independently and just make small independent films. He said, ‘Naaa, I’m too old for that. It’s too hard. It takes years and years of such energetic hustling to scrape up the money to be able to do anything like that.’ So, he’s trying to work within the Hollywood system, and you know, that’s so crass and money-oriented. It’s awful. And you know, it takes a lot of money to make a film, it takes millions of dollars. He’s managed to get someone, some Hollywood player to put up some money for him to do this script and get this movie together. So I’m happy to hear that. Terry’s a funny guy. He makes me laugh a lot. A very dark sense of humor."
Robert: "Well, somebody sent me a DVD of some of George Carlin’s various comedy routines. They were good. I thought he was a pretty funny guy. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him, this one DVD that someone sent me. But it was good, tough comedy, you know, on the mark."
Robert: "Well Johnson is probably the most well-known of all the old blues guys, and he’s right up there as one of the best, but there’s certainly others who are just as good. Charlie Patton, Skip James, early Sun House, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell (Blind Willie McTell is incredible). But Robert Johnson, he’s the one who’s remembered I guess because CBS put out this album of his and it sold really well. And also, because he was late enough in the 78 era, the late ’30s, when the sound quality was really good. All those other guys that I mentioned, except for Mississippi John Hurt, the recording quality is rather poor, and modern listeners have a hard time with that."
Alex: "You once did a strip of a blues musician who leaves the country and goes to the big city and gets shot [That’s Life, 1975]. Is that based on Johnson or anyone in particular?”
Robert: "That’s kind of an amalgam of a typical story that happened to a lot of those guys. You know, your typical blues man of the period. Because, you know, the whole blues genre, the world they lived in was the worst, low-life, dangerous, violent environment at that time. The kind of juke joints and dives where those guys played, no decent, churchgoing black people would have anything to do with that. Nothing to do with the blues or those places, and dreaded the idea of their children ever sinking to that level. At the time those records were coming out, in the ’20s and ’30s, almost no white people listened to them. It was strictly a black thing. It wasn’t until later, like the ’50s, that whites became interested in that music.
"Robert Johnson was essentially unknown to the white world until somebody told John Hammond about Robert Johnson. And then John Hammond tried to locate him to bring him in for a concert he was giving at Carnegie Hall. He wanted to have Robert Johnson perform at Carnegie Hall. But he couldn’t find him. And then, I guess, by the time he found out what happened, Robert Johnson was already dead, in 1937. He died shortly after his last recording session. No one came to claim him at the morgue. He was buried in a pauper’s grave. Such a loser, but that’s where the blues were at in those days though, you know? Very negative music, if you listen to the lyrics it’s all quite negative, and very violent, you know, about hurting their women. A lot of the times threatening to kill their girlfriends. ‘You be making whoopee in hell when I get through with ya,’ ‘I'm gonna start a graveyard of my own,’ etc." [laughs]
Robert: "Just recently he published a great book, maybe one of his best books. It’s called Paying For It. It’s great, well worth reading. The only problem with it is the pages are printed so small that you have to read it with a magnifying glass. They sent me an advance copy of the book, just a galley copy, and asked me if I would write something about it, a blurb, and I did. But when I wrote praising the story, I also wrote, ‘I hope you’re not planning on printing this as small as this galley you sent me. It’s unreadable! I had to read it with a magnifying glass. Is this the size you’re actually going to print this?’ The people at his publishers, Drawn and Quarterly, wrote back and said, ‘Oh we really like what you wrote and we’re going to use it as the introduction of the book.’ But they did not address my question about the size of the pages. And they printed it that size. It’s too bad. It’s really a shame they did that. Maybe Chester Brown wanted it that size, I don’t know.
"But it’s a great book. It’s about his giving up on having girlfriends and he decides he’s only going to see prostitutes to get laid. He’s unable to have a relationship with a woman, so he’s just going to go to prostitutes. At first he’s sort of nervous about it, and then he gets used to it, and then gradually, over the years, he gets to be a connoisseur of prostitutes. As I wrote in the introduction, I’ve known some other men who became connoisseurs of prostitutes. And then, gradually toward the end of the book, he gets deeply involved with this one prostitute and stops seeing any other ones, and sees her exclusively. And they almost, sort of fall in love, but not really, because he’s a customer and he still continues to pay her. They never end up living together, they hang out together and are very close, but he maintains the prostitute relationship.
Alex: "Obviously a way for him to feel safe and not become vulnerable."
Robert: "For both of them, yeah. Made a lot of sense to me. And at the end of the book there’s a long section, like 40 pages of text, where he raises all the arguments against prostitution and then counters each argument, one by one, with very intelligent rebuttals for all the standard arguments against prostitution. The feminist argument, the moral argument, the hygienic argument, all of them. You should get and read that book."