Crumb looks back at his work in 1972-73, his obsession with old music, and performing with the Cheap Suit Serenaders.
REFLECTIONS ON WORK & FAME
Oh God, oh geez.. 1972-’73… the time period of this book [The Complete Crumb: Volume 9]... I turned out a lot of comics, a lot of drawings back there in those years… but how much of it is any good?? No, I know, it’s not for me to judge, and, you know, I don’t want to downgrade my own work in a book somebody’s trying to, like, SELL… not too good for business… and anyway, I know a certain fervent, crazy young cartoonist (initials: M.P. -- so he’ll know who I’m referring to). Who tells me this is his favorite period of my work… but when I look back over the material in this book, I’m sorry -- I wince with embarrassment -- I’m not too happy with it... I don’t like the way it looks very much. The line quality is Fershatunkina… I was in a stylistic rut, I was tired and uninspired…
The fact o’th’matter is I was sorta burned out in the early seventies… I’ve already gone over this in previous introductions in this series of volumes... I kept cranking out comics through the sheer persistence of a life-time habit, and out of a strong sense of obligation to my adoring public, and, yes, to my own ego… I feared if I stopped, that would be the end of R.Crumb as we know and love him… in fact, finally I DID have to stop for awhile… after Black and White Comics, done in ’73, I didn’t draw any comics for a long time… It was a very painful period in which I was forced to deal with… ugh... Gag... REALITY... Which had become a real mess in my case…
Cause, you know, I’m the kind of guy who WOULD mostly rather draw than grapple with the real world... This attitude makes for good artwork, but can be very dangerous to your survival... Most of the really interesting art, music, writing, is done by people who are not very smooth operators in the world, and often they have pathetic, fucked-up lives… you take a person like that and make them famous like that at an early age, chances are pretty certain you will see rapid burn-out, drug addiction, often even early DEATH! Well, that’s about where I was at in the early seventies, man!
Because when you’re in that position of having fame, even a modest fame like mine, people want to involve you in all manners of foolish nonsense. It’s truly amazing! This foolish nonsense has never ceased since I became Americas best-loved hippie cartoonist in the year 1968. It’s been an unending stream of nonsense! I’ve learned to live with it to some extent. Otherwise, you just have to retire-quit-do a fade out… there have been many times in the past 20 years when I have asked myself, is all this bullshit worth it?... how to continue to be a creative, spontaneous artist in the face of this bullshit has been the major challenge of my life since 1968… And I often wonder if I made the right choice. Nothing I’ve done since the late sixties has quite the magic of that early work. I s’pose I found other sources of inspiration to keep the work interesting -- but really, I often think the cool thing would’ve been to quietly exit the comic scene in 1971 and never be seen again… NO, NO my fans will shout -- you’ve done alotta great comics since then! Yeah, maybe I’m just neurotic. Anyway, it’s all rhetorical… who has that kind of freedom of choice in these situations? I’m no more in control of my ego than the next schmuck…
MUSICAL COLLECTING & IDEALISM
One of the bits of foolishness that I became involved in was the music business. After that brief interlude living in the ecstatic now of the late sixties, I returned once again to my maudlin nostalgia for the dear dead past -- especially the music of the twenties. I began again to collect old 78 rpm records in earnest. Collecting had always been my addiction of choice, and I became hooked again. I started spending a lot of time, energy and money hunting for those old jazz, blues and country records from the twenties. So while I had to force myself to keep drawing comics, what I truly enjoyed was going for adventures into uncharted territories and pawing through piles of junk and dank, dark second-hand stores. The good records were few and far between, finding a stack of good ones all in one place was a euphoric, thrilling experience, but rare, of course. Mostly you found them one by one, through days and weeks of searching and asking around.
This love of old music led to friendships with other young musical idealists. There was the old time music scene; a lot of hippie types who played old American country fiddle tunes, blues, ragtime, and Irish music. I could plinkety-plink along on my little toy instrument, a quaint little 1920s banjo-uke I found at the Alameda Flee Market. My music skills were very limited, but playing music with other people was very relaxing, generally, than just sitting around getting stoned, and every once in a while the music would sort of come together and sound almost like one a’those old records. That was always kind of exciting.
Next thing I knew I was in a band with Al Dodge and Richard Armstrong, their sensibilities were close to mine, musically as well as in other ways. Armstrong was even a cartoonist! He was the creator of the “Mickey Rat” and turned out a lot of excellent comics and paintings, and after years and years of poverty, both of these bums made themselves a small fortune off the very concept of doing nothing except watching TV, when they created the “Couch Potato” Cult. The merchandising rights alone paid enough to set them both up pretty well in the eighties. Who’da thought…
The three of us became close companions in the early seventies. We sat around in my cabin in Potter Valley, playing music, listening to records, making endless stupid tapes of improvised comedy routines. Terry Zwigoff started coming around and we forced him againt his better judgment to learn to play cello; we needed a bass. I think he always hated that thing.
ON THE ROAD
A year or so before Terry came in, Dodge, Armst, and I traveled across the country, and actually performed our first paying "gig" in Aspen, Colorado. We’d been hanging around the hateful ski resort town and playing music in coffee houses, and then some fool actually hired us to play for the end-of-the-season beer bash of the Aspen Ski Patrol. It was a disaster. Here were these three geeks consisting of mandolin, Hawaiian guitar, and Banjo-uke. One of the ski-patrol guys finally came up to us and literally begged us, offered to give us fifty dollars extra, if we’d just play some "boogie". We sat there with our heads bowed in shame. Dodge went and called this piano player we knew, a veteran crowd pleaser, and entreated him to come and rescue our asses. The guy came right over, and single-handedly took control, bantering with the partiers and banging out “git-down boogie” on the piano for several hours while the three of us watched in amazement, a real pro at work. Al got with it after awhile, playing rock licks on his mandolin right against the microphone and performing exaggerated body movements, even rolling on the floor. Armstrong and I were laughing our heads off ‘til we noticed that the crowd was eating it up! They were impressed! It was a traumatic experience… We learned a lot about the music business that night!
It was on this cross-country trip that I managed to draw the entire contents of XYZ Comics, which is partly why it’s such a jumble of disconnected images. Only the last story, “Fuzzy The Bunny” in “Nut Factory Blues” (title taken from an old blues of 1931) has any kind of story to it. It was based on a visit to my brother Charles in Philadelphia, who was residing in a mental institution at the time. Much of the dialogue was taken directly from things he’d written or that I transcribed from conversations with him. Fuzzy The Bunny and Donnie Dog were the characters of Charles’ childhood home-made comic books.
The next dumb thing I did was try to revive the 78 RPM record. Our band cut two of our own 78 singles in 1972. Denis Kitchen published one of them in Wisconsin. The second was recorded in the L.A. area. Naturally, neither of these records sold very well, except to a few devout Crumb fans as some kind of odd item. We sorta overlooked the fact that nobody had 78 speed on their record players anymore, except us.
"GET OUT THE SAW"
Over the next several years, this band developed a bit, took in a few more musicians, made three LPs for Yazoo in New York, played a lot of clubs, bars, folk festivals, weddings and parties and even went on a national “tour” of sorts in 1976. We settled on the name, “R.Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders,” and of course I was the front man. I had the name that would bring people to see us (Yeah, they stared at us more than they listened, I do believe.) The clubs were the worst… it was excruciating for me… the only advantage was every now and then there’d be some friendly female who would let me maul her. Weddings and parties were better. The people all knew each other, and our music helped create a convivial social atmosphere, something you don’t get with loud rock music. Another one of our “venues” in the early days was the street. Jeeziz that was a grim scene… Fisherman’s Warf, Union Square in San Francisco. Armstrong played the musical saw, and whenever the crowds of passerby were ignoring us too much, somebody’d say, “okay, Armstrong, get out the saw…” it never failed… it stopped them cold… they’d crowd around and gape with wonder at a guy playing a saw… they took snapshots, asked questions… they were highly fascinated… It was enough to make you very cynical... Armstrong could be playing the most beautiful ragtime or blues masterpiece with great feeling and they’d just walk on by... we were just so much shrubbery… but then he’d take out that saw, and you’d get fifty people tossing money. “Okay, Armstrong, get out the saw!” I mean, you had to get their attention somehow!
The comic “Funny Animals” was originally an idea that Terry Zwigoff put forward. He had taken a tour of a big slaughterhouse somewhere, and been so horrified by what he witnessed there that he wanted to put together a comicbook which was a statement against cruelty to animals… very noble idea, but when the work started coming in, he was greatly disappointed. None of the stories were expressions of his original editorial concern for the well-being of innocent animals. My story “What A World” was one of the sickest, most violent, bloody, nihilistic as well as sadistic, misogynistic things I’d ever drawn. Where do these feelings come from? I dunno, but anyway, Terry abdicated his position as editor and wanted nothing more to do with it….
-- R.Crumb, Sauvé, France, June, 1992