R. Crumb’s Music Madness – part two, by Michael H. Price
Continued from last week:
Robert Crumb and I began early in 1985 to develop a musical accompaniment for the first stage production of R. Crumb Comix at Fort Worth, Texas’ Hip Pocket Theatre. We consulted by telephone between my digs in Fort Worth and his home near Winters, California, and Robert prepared numerous reference dubs from his collection of 78-R.P.M. phonograph records. These, I augmented with musical sources from my own library, plus scattered original compositions. I recruited an orchestra from within guitarist Slim Richey’s and my jazz trio, Diddy Wah Diddy, and from our affiliated string band, the Salt Lick Foundation, with which I had recently completed a string of record albums for Slim’s Ridge Runner/Tex Grass labels.
Band rehearsals commenced in May of 1985, with all concerned forewarned to buck up for a three-hour show scored with what Crumb wanted to be “constant music – just like in those ol’ Hal Roach comedy films.” Yes, and never mind that the Roach pictures (including the Depression years’ Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang series) ran to just 20 or 30 minutes apiece in length. Well, at least there would be an intermission.
So Robert reached Texas on schedule, got settled in, and found the progress agreeable. He warmed especially to the women (consistent with Crumb’s vision) whom director Johnny Simons had cast. Robert took issue with some of the music as sounding “too modernistic – that ’forties swing stuff” (no accounting for taste) but found the score workable overall, enjoying the sound well enough to commandeer a plectrum banjo from Salt Lick’s Lee Thomas and perform as a member of the orchestra on the opening weekend that June. Crumb’s banjo-playing fit right in, evoking memories of Eddie Peabody and the Light Crust Doughboys’ Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery. I had composed one of the show’s tunes, “Save Me a Slice of That,” as a Doughboys pastiche.
Hip Pocket Theatre’s principal venue in those days, Oak Acres Amphitheatre northwest of Fort Worth, was an overwhelmingly rustic site, seemingly an outgrowth of the very woods surrounding Lake Worth. (The theatre has since relocated to a similarly woodsy area.) Here dwelt spirits, including one legendary Lake Worth Monster, whose exploits Johnny Simons had chronicled in a cycle of autobiographical plays that, by turns, celebrate and betray the self in ways reminiscent of Crumb’s cartoons – and with the same strategic extremes of candor and obliqueness.
This climate of unbridled expression proved sufficiently hospitable to the spirits of Crumb’s stories – the lovable charlatan Mr. Natural, the gumption-deficient Flakey Foont, the satyristic troglodyte Mr. Snoid, et al. – who cavorted before capacity turnouts on through July. A scattered few showgoers (including the mother of our orchestra’s Dobro player, Greg Jackson), walked out in indignant response to the overt, though hardly explicit, eroticism and/or neuroticism of the production.
The stories thus adapted ranged from vignettes first seen in such underground publications of the 1960s as Zap Comix, Yellow Dog Comics, and Yarrowstalks, to then-recent sustained narratives including “Uncle Bob’s Mid-Life Crisis” and “R. Crumb’s Modern Dance Workshop.” Some of the characters were bunraku-style puppets designed and brought to a persuasive imitation of life by James Maynard. Some of the human players, including Ric Swain as the bulb-nosed Mr. Natural, essentially puppet-ized themselves with extravagant jobs of makeup. Yet others, such as Dwight Welsh as Crumb’s eternal Everyman-as-nebbish, Flakey Foont, just naturally looked the part.
The musical set-pieces included the familiar hokum-blues “Keep On Truckin’” (of course!) and such traditional items as “Alabama Jubilee” and “The Arkansas Traveler.” The highest of several high points occurred during Robert’s opening-show appearance, when actor John Murphy, portraying Crumb, yanked Crumb himself bodily out of the orchestra pit, confronting the crowd with the spectacle of twin Crumbs. The fans who had joined the audience as well-intentioned stalkers were duly astonished to learn that Robert had been hiding in plain sight, plunking away on the banjo.
Robert hauled out soon thereafter for France, where he connected with a splendid Continental jazz outfit known as Primitives of the Future – very much in the musette tradition, with Robert playing mandolin – and began contemplating a move for keeps.
This accomplished, Robert and his family revisited America in 1992, stopping in Texas long enough to catch up with the Hip Pocket players and to perform an impromptu blues-and-country jam with the guitarist Josh Alan Friedman and me during the comic-book industry’s Harvey (as in Kurtzman) Awards ceremonies at the Dallas Fantasy Fair.
We found time, elsewhere during the Dallas sessions, to screen a videotape of the 1985 show, with a sizeable crowd in attendance. I figured the viewing would be a snoozer for Robert – but no such thing. Instead, he hyucked it up all through the thing, recalling backstage antics and humming along with all that “constant music,” as he had called for to begin with.
“What a wacky troupe!” said Crumb.
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.