R. Crumb’s Music Madness and Me, by Michael H. Price
The life and times of R. Crumb, a mensch among men and one of the more steadfastly brilliant practitioners of American (resident or expatriate) cartooning, have been sufficiently well covered in Terry Zwigoff’s documentary film, Crumb (1994), and in Peter Poplaski’s The R. Crumb Handbook (M.Q. Publications; 2005) and innumerable column-inches of The Comics Journal, that I feel no particular need to pursue any generalized biographical tack here.
In a recent letter, Crumb brings things somewhat up to date: “I’m in the middle of a big project – comic-book version of the Book of Genesis, approx. 200 pages when finished.” This involvement had prevented his traveling to Texas in 2006 to take part in a new experimental-theatre staging of R. Crumb Comix with director Johnny Simons and Yrs. Trly. Simons’ Fort Worth-based Hip Pocket Theatre troupe has adapted Crumb’s stories on several occasions since 1985.
Robert Crumb’s larger career might reasonably find itself crystallized in two warring viewpoints: The authoritative critic Robert Hughes’ earnest likening of Crumb to Pieter Brueghel the Elder, greatest of the Sixteenth Century’s Flemish painters, vs. this published declaration from Crumb his ownself: ‘Broigul I ain’t… let’s face it.’
The greater concerns here are those of Crumb’s music, and of how he came to apply that interest to one concentrated span of fertile and fevered activity 22 years ago in Texas, in collaboration with Johnny Simons and me. It stemmed from our shared perception of cartooning and drama and music as intertwined processes. Probably has a great deal to do with my discoveries as a little kid of such music- and cartoon-driven motion pictures as the Fleischer Bros.’ Betty Boop and Popeye short subjects of the Depression years, the Disney studios’ Song of the South (1946), and a waterlogged MGM musical called Dangerous when Wet (1953). All these, of course, hinge to one extent or another upon a combination of live-action cinema with animated cartooning and jazzy music.
Crumb’s cartooning, which began surfacing in a commercial arena during the early 1960s, is of a style that causes the observer to sense music. I had picked up on that quality straightaway when I first noticed Robert’s gag-card work for American Greetings’ Hi-Brows line. (The department-store shoe boutique where I worked during high school, no doubt anticipating a cue from the ProJunior Manual of Career Strategies, stood right across an aisle from the stationery counter.) I found that same implied musicality in Robert’s contributions to Harvey Kurtzman’s HELP! magazine.
Robert’s increasingly audacious, ultimately taboo-busting, work of the later 1960s made the musical connections patent: Who else but a devotée of deep-rooted American music would devote entire pages of cartoons to the slogan, “Keep on Truckin’”?
The Texas connection with Crumb began shaping up in 1981, when I dropped the artist a letter in response to one of his more recent publications, an issue of Weirdo magazine. A lively correspondence followed, predicated largely upon Robert’s interest in the indigenous music of Texas. I mentioned a recent encounter with Fred ‘Papa’ Calhoun, the Fort Worth groceryman who had played piano with Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies during the Depression years. Crumb seemed fascinated by my proximity to such a wellhead of Southern jazz: “You’re certainly in a good area for hot music traditions!”
I mentioned this correspondence at one point or another to Johnny Simons, whose Hip Pocket Theatre was already a going concern with an international following. Johnny mentioned, in turn, his fondness for Crumb’s work and inquired whether I might pitch the idea of a collaboration. One thing led to another, and in mid-1985 Crumb traveled from Winters, California, into Texas to begin work on Hip Pocket’s first production of R. Crumb Comix.
Accompanying Johnny to the airport was John Murphy, the actor assigned to handle the portrayal of Crumb both as a working artist and as one of his own cartoon characters. Through some prankish pre-immersion in character, Murphy had macked himself out as Crumb for this first face-to-face encounter, right down to the finer detail of a prosthetic overbite – what with Murphy’s being a practicing dentist and manufacturer of tailor-made porcelain chompers.
At Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Murphy parked his carcass at a pub on the concourse while Johnny Simons staked out the gate where Crumb’s flight would be arriving – this, in a friendlier and less anxious age of airborne comings-and-goings. Soon enough, Simons and Crumb were en route to the luggage depot. Crumb, a relentlessly searching observer, spotted the impersonator from a distance. Startled by the apparition, Crumb gestured toward the airport barroom, tugged at Simons’ sleeve, and whispered, urgently: “There’s a guy – sitting there, at the bar – who looks just like me.” Prank accomplished.
One must get cracking pretty early in the morning to put one over on R. Crumb, so from the success of their welcoming stunt we might conclude that Simons and Murphy had achieved a running head-start on the sun that summer’s day in 1985. A masquerade sufficiently accurate to halt Crumb in his tracks must be right, as well, for a dramatization aiming to capture both the spirit and the letter of the artist.
R. Crumb Comix seems to have begun assuming its form some twenty-odd years before Simons, Crumb, and I started hammering out the adaptation and setting it to music. It all dates from my first encounter with Robert’s then-anonymous series of greeting cards, and then to the revelation of identifying that rambunctious style with the signed pieces that soon followed.
For here, in this relentlessly striving body of work, Crumb kept sending out secret signals that whatever his subject matter – erotic obsessions, spiritual and economic chicanery, the counterculture as a class – his steadfast inspiration lay in music.
And not just any music, at that. I would look at a Crumb page – even those lacking in pointed musical references – and hear in the back of my mind the Jazz Age and Depression Era songs of Paul Whiteman, Riley Puckett, the Memphis Jug Band, and especially the Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang movie scores of Leroy Shield and T. Marvin Hatley.
I had grown up with all that Good Old Stuff all during the 1950s, thanks to syndicated television and a family record collection that rendered rock ’n’ roll, with its encroaching currents of pop-tune corruption, all but irrelevant. So had Crumb, as things developed, although he had undertaken aggressively to search out such music where I had taken it for granted.
As music finally proved more of a force and less of a backdrop in Crumb’s work, I had determined that I must begin communicating with the artist, if only to compare notes on what I perceived as our common ground in music and cartooning. I had written often about Crumb, for both mass-market and underground newspapers, and his bold drawing style had influenced my own editorial and gag cartoons – even as our shared musical tastes figured in my sideline as a nightclub pianist.
My first direct communications with Crumb yielded this observation from him about the entertainment racket:
“I quit the music business,” he wrote in 1981, referring to the disbanding of his old-fashioned string ensemble, the Cheap Suit Serenaders. “Comics are crazy enough… the music business – forget it! I still enjoy playing music, but no more professional jobs, records, tours, et cetera. … I just couldn’t take it…”
When Johnny Simons first brought up the idea of a Crumb play, I reckoned the thought a good one. I balked nonetheless, being mindful of Robert’s stated distaste for show business – and particularly for the execrable misrepresentation of his work in two Fritz the Cat movies of the nineteen-seventies. I felt certain that Johnny Simons would do Crumb justice and suggested that Johnny just write Crumb without my middle-manning an approach.
“Naw,” said Johnny. “I’d feel better if you brought it up, got me an intro. I don’t want to just hit him up, out of the blue.”
So we left it at that until – with a friendly correspondence well established – I dropped Johnny’s idea into one of my letters to Robert. Crumb wrote back on March 20, 1985:
A friend of yours wants to do a stage production of my work?? Wow! I’m flattered (?) Just tell him to line up those big-leg women and I’ll be right down to do some ‘collaboratin’.’ Hyuck hilk guhilk… Is the guy any good? Does he have a sense of humor? Will it be sexy? What works of mine is he interested in using? Will there be any pay? Do they have a lot of money to spend on budget? ‘Hip Pocket’ doesn’t make it sound too promising in the bank-account department. Will he pay my way to Fort Worth to work on it with him? Well, give him my phone number if you really think this clown is “on the ball” –
Johnny Simons was not only “on the ball,” but also keen upon snatching up the opportunity. By mid-April, he had enlisted me to develop a musical score, confirmed principal casting, scheduled a long summer-season run, and budgeted for Robert to come in as a full collaborator.
To be continued next week…
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s original-cast CD-album, R. Crumb – The Musical! is available from Shel-Tone Records. A new recording of musical selections from the 2006 Crumb Comix show is in production. Price’s Forgotten Horrors movie-lore books are available from Midnight Marquee Press. The author’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.
Artwork © 1985-2007 R. Crumb; Photography © 1985-2007 Hip Pocket Theatre. All Rights Reserved.