An interview between Robert Crumb and marketing specialist, Reilly Birkett

Reilly: Hi! This is Reilly. 

Robert: Yeah. I knew you were going to call. 

Reilly: Alex told me to call at four PM our time. 

Robert: Okay. Do you have any questions lined up? 

Reilly: Yeah, I've got a couple. My first question is, do you find it interesting that a 22-year-old girl is intrigued and interested in your work? I think that kind of goes against the norm. I don't think a lot of 21-year-old girls are very drawn to your work. 

Robert: Yeah, right.  I don't think so either. And I know from talking to older people who teach at colleges and universities in the United States that a lot of students in that age range — 19, 20, 21, 22 — in art classes that are now teaching comics in various schools if the teacher shows my work as an example, some students strongly object, and actually complain to the administration that they're being “triggered” or something by this “offensive” work of mine. The teacher might not show them a particularly offensive work, but then they go and they look me up online, and they see all that crazy stuff I was doing in the Seventies, Eighties, and all that, and there are some of them who are just highly outraged by the content. So, yeah, it's rather unusual that someone your age — a girl, particularly — would have a positive reaction to my work. That’s puzzling to me. I don't get what's going on. 

Reilly: [Laughs] I think I may just have a more open mind than most people. 

Robert: Yeah. Maybe, maybe so! 

Reilly: It’s weird that you say that because my roommate is an art major and she actually did a semester-long project on your work because she really loves it so much. 

Robert: Really? Wow. She loves it?  

Reilly: Yeah, she does. 

Robert: And someone like that, how does she feel about all of the crazy sex fantasy stuff I did back in those days? What's her reaction to that? 

Reilly: She and I actually sat down and read your comics together over the summer. And, you know, neither of us were, like, appalled or anything–not outraged. I know that she has a deep appreciation for expressing things in art that way rather than acting out in…. 

Robert: Like, in the real world, yeah. 

Reilly: Yeah! That was our main conversation topic. Outside of that, we're able to look at art expression in an open way. None of it was too bothersome. 

Robert: How do you and she feel about these other types of people who are outraged by my work, and say that I'm “a sexist, or racist, a sexual predator”? How do you deal with those people? What do you say to them? Or do you ever talk to them about that? Those people who are so outraged and wanna, you know, “cancel” people and all that stuff. What's your attitude about that? 

Reilly: I guess it depends on the situation. I'd say regarding your work, we haven't had too many conversations about it outside of our own. But, just in general, I think we try to put a different perspective on it. So, the time frame, for example, the period when it happened–that's a big thing. It was a whole different time, you know, the Sixties and Seventies. And then there's also the aspect of the point of your artwork - which, at least as far as I know, much of it was specifically to rub people the wrong way? 

Robert: [laughs] Well, there was that when I was young. Yeah. Okay, I got sucked a little bit into the thing of shocking people. That’s a thing that happened, for example, in the Punk movement. You know, where young people like the idea of shocking their parents or shocking people with rigid or middle class attitudes about everything, just to shake them up. I got sucked into that, which might’ve been stupid in a way... It was fun to do, but a stupid thing. But above and beyond that, there was always a part of me that I was revealing, that was really a part of who I am, or was. I had a lot of anger towards women. I did. Anybody who doesn't admit that they have anger towards the opposite sex is lying. Everybody has some anger towards the opposite sex. I had a lot of anger towards women, and there was part of my psyche that was tied up in that, and I let it out in my art work, for better or worse, I don't know. In the final analysis, I can't judge whether what I did is of any benefit for or useful purpose for other people or not. I just don't know. 

Reilly: There is a way to look at it in a sense that you're doing it in artwork rather than, in the real world, right? But at least there's that, and whether or not it helps other people, I guess, we'll never really know.  

Robert: I was sort of crazy when I look back on my youth —I’m 77 now. When I look back on my teens and twenties, I was a pretty crazy young man. I behaved compulsively. You know, I meditate now fairly regularly. And sometimes memories come up about things I did when I was young. God, what a jerk I was! Oh, boy. I was awful. It would be what is now called “inappropriate” behavior towards women–hundreds of times. 

Reilly: That's interesting because people have even come out and apologized to me within the last year for things they did or said to me 10 years ago that I don't remember at all, but they... they're going through therapy, and they're just like, “Oh, my God, I behaved so bizarrely.” 

Robert: Huh, that's interesting. 

Reilly: I wanted to ask you how you're handling the pandemic. I'm not sure how it is in France or in the area you're in right now. 

Robert: They have a lot of restrictions and you have to wear a mask when you go to a store or anything. They don't require you to wear a mask outside. A lot of people do, but I don't.  I hate wearing that stupid mask, but I put it on when going into a store and all that. But then, you know, they had lockdown here and now they have a fucking seven o'clock evening curfew here. I have sneaked out several times, you know, to go visit people in the village and stuff. But other than that, I haven't been, you know, traveling or anything. It's been a very quiet year, which I kind of like. I sort of like this aspect of it, that things have really quieted down. There's not as much running around and people aren't showing up here as much as they did before. It’s kind of nice that way. When the first lockdown happened last spring, like a year ago in March here, things were so quiet. The spring came, you could hear the birds singing and nature just bloomed really strongly because human life was subdued. There weren't a lot of cars on the road. The air was cleaner and wow, it was really eye-opening. Peace and quiet. Aline and I both were sort of, you know, like the piece and quiet. 

Reilly: I agree. 

Robert: And the other thing is that I constantly do a lot of my own research and investigation. I read a lot about the medical, socio-political aspects of the whole thing, you know, the pandemic. I read a lot of critiques. I've been reading critiques of the medical-industrial complex for twenty-five years. So when this thing started, it seemed to me just a continuation of things that were going on before, but kind of upping the ante, upping the scale of the whole thing, to the whole world. They managed to shut down the entire world over this thing! I'm not sure what's really behind it. I don't know. I don't know if there actually is a really badass virus on the loose out there or not. I don't know. There're all kinds of stories and conflicting narratives about what's really behind it. So I don't know, it's very confusing. I’m always asking myself, what the hell is really going on?? 

Reilly: So you haven't had Covid-19 at all? 

Robert: No I haven't. Reilly: I had it two different times. 

Robert: Oh you’ve had it? 

Reilly: Yeah, two different times. Which is apparently pretty uncommon. 

Robert: Wow, two different times. How bad was it? 

Reilly: So, the first time was really bad. and actually, all my siblings, my dad, and all of my friends have had it and all had varying symptoms. So when I had it the first time I was on bed rest.  I was sleeping, like, 18 hours a day for 17 days. I didn't get out of bed to go to the shower for 10 of those. Oh, that was bad. It was really rough for me the first time. But the second time, I just had a light cold. 

Robert: Well, let me ask you this. Have you ever had the flu before this? 

Reilly: Yeah, I get it every year. 

Robert: Every year. Did you ever have it this bad before? 

Reilly: Not the flu, but I've had very bad pneumonia, several times. My immune system is not great for some reason. But, I've had bouts of pneumonia and a couple of other things. But, I'd say it was like a mix of all of those, and like I said the first time completely bedridden me. The second time, it was virtually nothing in terms of symptoms. So it's really confusing. 

Robert: So you get it every year you said. 

Reilly: And I get the vaccine every year, but… 

Robert: Well, so much for the vaccine! 

Reilly: [Laughs] Doesn't work very well for me. 

Robert: Yeah. So, I wonder, you know, one of the questions is — and it's very hard to find information on it — this flu, and the commonality of it, and the seriousness of it, compared with previous years, previous flu seasons. It's just very hard to find that information. I mean, I'm sure it must be available at the CDC, or one of those agencies must have statistics and evaluations of annual flu seasons and how bad it was and how many people died, and make comparisons with previous years with this Covid-19 thing. I haven’t seen that. 

Reilly: I do remember reading that the flu season this year was apparently significantly better, not as bad as previous years. And that was likely due to all the covid restrictions. But outside of, just this year versus all the years, I have no clue where to find out. Especially comparing Covid-19. 

Robert: Umm. Yeah. I don't know why they don't make those comparisons. If this is something exceptional, exceptional enough to lock everything down for a whole fucking year, you’d think that they would want you to have a clear understanding of why they're doing it. 

Reilly: Yeah. That's my big thing with it, there's so much confusion around. Different people have different information. 

Robert: Which makes people paranoid. And we start seeing all kinds of scenarios then that emerge, you know, from the internet and everything -  from the most whacked-out theories to stuff that makes more credible sense. In some quarters, any questioning of orthodox sources like the CDC or Anthony Fauci, any questioning of those sources is considered crazy conspiracy theories, Q-anon. You know, you're associated immediately with Q-anon by asking a few questions. I've encountered this a lot. So I have to try to clarify this pandemic with people. Just because you question this thing doesn't mean you're Q-anon. But they will associate you with that, and even the liberal media often puts that on anybody who criticizes or questions. You're a nutcase conspiracy theorist and you are dismissed based on that. Which makes me immediately suspicious that, you know, there’s a giant propaganda thing going on. But who knows? I don't. I don’t know what the hell's going on. 

Reilly: At least we got to kind of slow down for a bit. I don’t really mind. I don't really mind being able to do everything from home now. But it has been really interesting to watch how people react to all of this. 

Robert: Yeah, you don’t mind? 

Reilly: I mean yeah it’s kind of nice. I mean,  I miss, like, everything that I could do before, but really, I don't mind the change in my work or school. That's actually very convenient for me. 

Robert: Were you someone who liked to party a lot and stuff like that and, you know, hang out with your friends? 

Reilly: Yeah, my friends and I like to go out a lot. So, that's been harder. I mean we're fine, but yeah, we like to go out. Right before everything shut down, I actually was in Europe for, like, around four months to study abroad, and that time was full of just clubbing and traveling. And then right when I got back, everything shut down. So the transition was really hard. But it's totally fine now that I've adjusted. 

Robert: Oh, when I think back to how I was at your age, I was constantly running around. I used to travel across the country, you know, periodically, in those years. And now that I'm old I don't care. I'm perfectly happy to sit in my room now. But back then, I wanted to be out and looking around and having adventures. I think that It's much harder on young people — the confinement, restrictions, and all that — than it is on older people. 

Reilly: Yeah I agree, we've had it really hard, like, just being stuck in our house. I live with four other girls.  It's nice to live with friends, but we definitely miss social life. We do want to travel and party again. 

Robert: Did you see all of that news footage about those kids in Miami and South Beach, Florida, mostly Black kids, Black youth? They’re all out there, crowding in the streets, partying, and suddenly the cops come into the streets and start shooting pepper balls at them. 

Reilly: Oh, yeah, That's the worst thing they could have done about this. 

Robert: That's so stupid. 

Reilly: Just agitates everything.  I don't think they’ve learned that lesson yet. 

Robert: Apparently not. 

Reilly: Let's see, I guess those are the two main things I wanted to talk about. And I got a couple of others. They are unrelated, just a couple of random things I wanted to ask you. I want to know what your least favorite piece of yours is. 

Robert: My favorite piece of mine? 

Reilly: Least favorite, actually. 

Robert: Least favorite piece… I gotta think about that. I never thought about what was my least favorite piece. 

Reilly: It didn't have to be a piece you didn't like, but rather something you just really didn't enjoy doing at the time.  

Robert: When I was young, I did commercial work that I now look at as, you know, it's not something I really enjoyed doing very much. I just did it because I needed the money. I needed to, you know, earn money to pay the rent. But once I got to the point where my work was popular, since then, I've mostly done work that I enjoy doing. Or at least that means something to me, that is an honest reflection of my own proclivities or tastes or whatever. But some of the stuff I did for commercial purposes, some of that I am not real happy about. I look at my work, and sometimes I think it’s so stupid, and annoying, and fucked up; and then other times I look at it and think it's a work of genius and brilliant. You know, I fluctuate back and forth. 

Reilly: Are you doing more or less drawing during all this quarantining? 

Robert: Drawing? Yeah, I've been gradually drawing less and less as I've gotten older. I draw a lot less now than I did when I was young. When I was your age, in my twenties I was a fucking drawing machine. I just was always cranking. I kind of lived my life on paper. But as my fame grew I became more involved in the world. Mostly I was running around chasing women all over the place, you know, once I got famous then women were much more accepting of me because of the fame thing. So I had opportunities opened up to me to have relationships with all kinds of women, and it was the late Sixties, early Seventies, and things were really wide open. You can't even imagine how wide open it was for the younger generation in America at that time, and it was much easier to meet people of the opposite sex and have sex and, you know, get the clap or get crabs and all of that. I took advantage of that — totally. In those years, I was running all over the place, but I was still working. I managed to work through all that. I don’t know how I did it. I was cranking through it all. As I got older, I just slowed down and worked less and less and, you know, just kind of worked it out of my system I guess.. So now I don't work nearly as much. I spend a lot more time on correspondence and reading and playing music. I get more enjoyment out of playing music now than I do out of doing artwork. Yeah, and you know, the worst thing artists can do is to keep cranking it out because it's expected of them. Or they can't let go of the ego strokes they get from doing it, you know, it's the worst thing you can do. So, I try not to give in to that temptation. 

Reilly: Okay. I have one more question, though. Yeah, one I was thinking of unless I can think of any more off the top of my head, but I'm wondering: Why France? Robert: Why France? 

Reilly: Yeah. Robert: It was my wife's idea. Do you know Aline's work? 

Reilly: Yes! 

Robert: She's a pretty funny cartoonist in her own right. She’s got some great stories. We started to come over to France in the Eighties, came over here several times, various comic reasons, you know, comic festivals and stuff like that. And she just fell in love with this fucking country and started like, hocking me... She started working on me to move to France in the late Eighties, and now I’ll say, “Why did we move to France? Tell me again.” And she’ll say, “All through the Eighties, all you ever did was bitch and complain about America and how awful things were going in America.” It’s true — the Eighties were not a good decade in America in a lot of ways. It was the era of Ronald Reagan and the resurgence of this kind of, like, awful business-oriented conservatism, and big, anti-pornography movement. And then you had the AIDS thing come up, HIV and all that. And then there was a big wave of cocaine that went through the country. And where we lived in California, there was constant real estate development going on. There was nothing sacred. They just ripped down beautiful old houses and put up these ugly “McMansions” and stuff all over. That was going on all around us in California. So yeah, I was not pleased. I was, you know, constantly bitching and complaining about it. And so she would say, look how much better it is in France. And then she came to this area where we are now, in 1989. She visited some people we knew here that had lived in California before -  this one French guy, his wife and this other American woman in the village, and she just came back full of rapture about it. “You gotta go there. We gotta move there. We're gonna move to this region of France! It's really beautiful and there are lots of cheap old houses. You gotta go and look at it.” So I came here on my own, and walked around. It was really nice. Yeah, Aline kind of pitched it to me. She comes from a long line of Jewish salespeople. And they really know how to deliver a sales pitch. And she sold me. So, you know, the next thing I knew, I woke up one morning and was living in France, with our 9-year old daughter. And, you know, I can't complain. It's pretty nice here. I gotta say, it's pretty nice. 

Reilly: My roommate, the one who’s the art major, she and I wanna move to Italy, hopefully. So I think it's interesting to ask people where they want to move. I really appreciate all the old beautiful buildings throughout Europe. 

Robert: I go out and walk around this village, and it never ceases to delight me how beautiful it is. The old houses, just the whole set-up is so beautiful. 

Reilly: I love the cobblestone streets and the places that still have those, I always like that. 

Robert:  And there are the old stone houses here... All the houses made of stone here, all the old ones. There are no wooden houses here. All stone, and the houses are hundreds of years old on little tiny winding streets. It's a very appropriate human environment. 

Reilly: Yeah, actually nice to look at. 

Robert: And, you know, America, I loved what old-time America looked like. I love photos of how America was in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Great looking country. The towns looked great. The old main streets, the houses, the architecture. I loved that. But they just destroyed so much of it. They mercilessly ripped it all down and built this modern, ugly shit. I can't stand it. Modern architecture in America and other places, even in Europe, it's just hideous to me, a blight on the land. 

Reilly: Yeah. I'm thinking my generation's moving more away from that. Or at least I hope so. I might just have a bit of a biased view on that because my friends - none of us are into that.. 

Robert: Oh, good. Glad to hear. Glad to hear. 

Reilly: Well, I think I'm about out of time. I have a very busy day. I gotta pack up my bags and drive to Colorado for a ski trip. Yeah, I've been trying to do that, cause, um, I really like outdoor activities. So COVID.. it's actually been really nice for that, skiing and hiking. 

Robert: Where are you going in Colorado? 

Reilly: We''re gonna ski at Winter Park and Copper. And a couple of weeks ago, we skied Taos in New Mexico. We just get in the car and drive that around, and that way we can avoid flights, which is convenient and safe for us during COVID. 

Robert: Well, good. Well, I gotta tell you, Alex is very happy with you. He thinks you're a really solid citizen. He thinks you’re a hard worker, you're reliable, you come through, do the job. I just gotta tell you that. 

Reilly: That's awesome to hear. I rarely get to hear what my bosses think of me, but Alex actually tells me. Well, thank you for doing this! 


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