Interview with American illustrator/artist Robert Crumb - widely considered to be the "father of underground comics."

"Part of the human condition and human nature is that some people are just going to go for power and domination over other people. We're just gorillas or just like apes that way, or chimpanzees, you know? There's always going to be the powerful alpha ones that have to dominate everyone else."

Robert Crumb: Comix Sings The Blues 

American illustrator and artist Robert Crumb is best known for his distinctive style and satirical tone and creating the cartoon character Fritz the Cat. Controversial American cartoonist Robert Crumb is widely considered to be the "father of underground comics." His work has a distinctive style and satirical tone and often features strongly stereotyped portrayals of minorities and overly sexualized women. He is best known for creating the cartoon characters Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and Devil Girl. Cartoonist Robert Crumb was born on August 30, 1943, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Talented and perverse, Crumb first entered the public eye as an underground cartoonist during the late 1960s as the creator of Zap Comix. He created such characters as Fritz the Cat, Angelfood McSpade and Mr. Natural. In 1962, Crumb moved to Cleveland where he found a job at the American Greetings Corporation. He first worked as a color separator before getting promoted to an illustrator position. According to his website, Crumb's boss often told him that his drawings were "too grotesque." Some of his most famous characters, including Mr. Natural, The Snoid, Shuman the Human and the Truckin' guys, surfaced his drawings from this period. Crumb soon started contributing to a number of underground newspapers. He moved to San Francisco in 1967, which had a growing underground hippie music and art scene. The first issue of Zap Comix came out in 1968. Around this time, Crumb created his famous cover art for Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills, which featured several drawings of lead singer Janis Joplin. Some of Crumb's work involved social satire. He took on the establishment with such characters as Whiteman, an uptight businessman. Mr. Natural was a so-called mystic who was really a con man. With Fritz the Cat, a character he had invented as a child, Crumb poked fun at bohemian types. The adventures of slick, female-chasing feline appeared in several magazines and comic books and in book form in 1969…Oh NO!...R. Crumb don’t need intro…let's talk about the Blues, Beats, satire, Europeans and many more...

Interview © by Michael Limnios -- Transcript by John Russo

Self-portraits, Jack Kerouac, Lightnin' Hopkins © by Robert Crumb

I would like to start about what do you miss most nowadays from the past, from the feeling of past?  

Robert Crumb: I don't miss that! I really don't have that desire anymore. Well, I think the world looked a lot better in old times. I don't know. And the music was better. And people dressed better in old times. But then in a lot of ways, people were more ignorant and prejudiced and racist and everything, so you know, it's a trade-off. Some things are lost, some things are gained. So, I don't know. If there were fewer people, that would be, the world would…If there was still more natural world left, that would have been nice, you know. I remember when I was a child, when driving across the United States with my parents and going through small towns, there was not yet big highway systems. You know, you had to drive right through the center of every small town. And the main streets of these towns were still very much, you know, intact. There was, all the stores were open and there was no suburban shopping malls or anything. There was no suburbs. It was much nicer that way. Especially, the towns had a center. There are a lot of things like that, that I miss about the past. I'm very much fixated on the past. I always have been since I was a kid.

What is the best advice ever given you? And what advice will you give to your generation?

Gosh, I don't know if I’m in any position to give anybody any advice. The only advice I can give to young people is, just like, you know, learn a hand skill. Learn to do something with your hands that'll get your through life. And, uh, avoid serious drug and alcohol addiction. That just destroys people. You know, you gotta be controlled and, and try to have some kind of personal self discipline, about work and partying. You know, not think that life can just be a party all the time. It can't be. You have to apply yourself and do some kind of work. And uh, the other thing is, uh, don't trust authority. Don't trust anything that comes from powerful sources of authority, either governments or the media or any large business enterprise. There's so much falsehood that comes out of those sources. Don't trust leaders. Don't trust, even, intellectual magazines. Questions everything. You must question everything.

You are an American who lives in Europe. Did you find any difference between Americans and Europeans people and culture?

Oh, that's just such a huge question. There's so many differences. But I find now that Europeans are much less different from Americans than they used to be. I lived in France for twenty-three years and French people have become much more like Americans than they used to be. They used to be much more different. But as the large global, corporate culture becomes more increasingly stronger - and it has attractions that, it seduces people. People are seduced by this. They want it. They want this corporate culture, this material thing that, you know. After World War II, it really came from the United States. It's not so much just an American way of life, but it kinda started there after World War II.

This modern suburban, affluent life of mass produced culture and material things. The world wants that. Everybody wants that. So I mean, there's older cultures, like France. There's some resistance, you know. France has some resistance to that. And in the ways that it resists, that France remains like a nice place. You know, the food and everything and the French are not nearly so, uh, quick at doing business as Americans are. They don't, they're not- even me as an American, I'm not a particularly business oriented person. But even I often see ways in which French people could be much more, much smarter about doing business and making money. Even I can see it, and I'm not a particularly a money person. What's funny is that the French– On the other hand, that's part of why it's great to live here. They're not so great at doing business, so there's a lot of stones left unturned, so to speak, you know. America is so business and money oriented. This whole culture. It always has been. America was founded on making money. The whole place– That's what it's always been about there. Making money. The business of America is business, as some president once said.

What is happiness to you? What is happiness for Robert?

For me? I don't know, I'm kind of a naturally depressed person, so for me to be happy– to find any moment of happiness is always a battle. I'm happy– sometimes I'm happy when I'm listening to old music. I used to be very happy when I found sexual fulfillment with women. That used to make me very happy when I was young. But those are fleeting moments of happiness. That sort of happiness only lasts for a while. Most of the time, life is very tedious and trying and difficult and depressing. If I'm walking in the streets of any big city, just looking at the other people in the street is usually deeply distressing to me. (Laughter)                           

Looking at the people in the street, seeing what, you know, perceiving what they're about. Like, uh–You know, having to go to the market where they play this loud, obnoxious music while you're trying to buy things, while you're trying to buy your groceries. I have to listen to this horrible music that puts me in really in a bad mood. But on the other hand, I derive deep happiness from, uh, listening to old music. And now I have, my daughter lives nearby and she has two kids, so I derive some happiness from those grandchildren. Although that's also painful because I see these, these two little innocent beings that I love so deeply. And I just know that their innocence will have to   be bit by bit destroyed. Their innocence will have to be shattered. You know, one thing at a time over the years as they grow up. As we all do. Everyone has to go through that, and that's pretty painful.

What has been the relationship between art and activism in your life and your art?

Well–It's the same like satire. The same like humor, sometimes. Uh it sponsored changes in my life, you know. I've gone through phases and changes. At times when I was younger, I tried to do things that were directly political with my work, and that usually didn't work. Being directly political and working for political papers, usually, you know always left-wing, of course. Left-wing, socialist papers. And trying to do political cartoons. That didn't work out so well for me. It's better for me just to do very personal stuff and to try and speak truth that way, though, just uh, stories that are very personal. You know, I can't presume to tell people what I think is politically correct. I can't, I just can't do that. It doesn't work. I can't do that.

What are the line that connect the art of comics, jazz music and the blues with underground culture?

Well, I don't know. I mean it has something to do with those forms of music. At least, to me, the early forms of blues and jazz were very much working class music and not music of the bourgeois, you know? And for me that, to do the kind of comics that I do, and even the comics that I liked as a kid, were also really not products of bourgeois culture so much.

They were really products of working class culture. So I think I've always been attracted to those forms of culture that come more from the working class. Even rock and roll, I think was, uh, you know, working class, working class music. Up until the 60s, up until the hippies discovered it. 'Cause the hippies were mostly middle class. When they embraced rock and roll, it stopped being a working class music. You know, some forms of rock and roll continue to be working class, but then, then there's this whole other thing happened. So I don't know. I'm not sure if I understand exactly what your point is, but I think that uh… and that kind of stuff. In the early days, anyway, it was kind of a low form of culture that was not, uh, respectable, exactly. You know, it was not respectable. In the beginning, blues was really a low form of art. It was completely  ignored. By the 1920s, when it was first recorded, blues was not even acknowledged by the middle bourgeois intelligence or culture, you know? They didn't– they barely acknowledged its existence.  Underground, you know, not in the sense of being like forbidden or, uh, illegal. Literally, the word "underground," in the beginning meant something that was actually suppressed, censored by the ruling class and, you know, the police and the authorities and all that –literally meant the beginning. So like, underground comics weren't really illegal and hippie underground culture wasn't really illegal. I think it was just, you know, kind of rebellious and politically rebellious against convention. So in that sense, identity with these forms of somewhat, uh, forms of culture that were scorned by the bourgeois, like blues and, uh, I don't know, comic books.

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

Well, I'm like everyone else, you know there's a lot to be concerned about the future. The population of the human race has gotten so huge that it can't go on. It can't go on growing like it has in recent– in the last hundred years. That's just not possible. So what will happen? Will there be a big, huge cataclysmic disasters where millions and millions of people have to die? I don't know. I don't know, that worries me. And all that stuff, the whole ecological crisis and all that. That worries me. Also, on a more immediate level, the kind of like sinister doings of the business elite. The people with the money and what they're up to and how they are manipulating the population through modern forms of very, very sophisticated public relations and propaganda and deception. Very– more sophisticated than it's ever existed before in history. That kinda worries me. It scares me. And, and to oppose that, to detect, to investigate and detect these forms of deception and to try to expose them is very difficult. It's very difficult. And you can find yourself coming up against beliefs that are so deeply indoctrinated in the general public that people think you're crazy. You know, that's why you constantly hear people scoffing at conspiracy theories and da-da-da paranoia. Because they don't want people investigating that deeply because, you know, it's not in their interests to have people exposing what they're doing. So that, so they can have all kinds of kinds of ways of making, discrediting anyone who does that or tries to do that. They're very, very good at that. Very good at discrediting people who are trying to expose what they're up to. And that's, that's, that worries me deeply. That worries me. And I myself, I do a lot of investigating myself. I'm afraid to talk about it openly, often, things I find. Because people just think you're crazy and they will, they will jump on you and do everything they can to discredit you.

How important was the Beat generation in your life? How important was the Beat movement?

Well, I was young. I was in my late teens. It was before the hippie times.  And so these beat writers: William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac.

Those guys, those guys made a big impression on me, a deep impression. You know, because at that time in America, it was the 50s, and it was– people were extremely conformist, you know? So you had these guys who were sort of outsiders and contrary– contrarians, you know? And they were, well, I still admire those guys. I still admire their writing.

Let's take a trip with a time machine. So, where will you really want to go with a time machine?

Well, if I could do it, if it was possible, I would love to be able to go back in time to many eras, many periods in time. You know, first I'd go back to the 1920s. America in the 1920s. But then I'd love to go back in other time periods, you know? Medieval Europe, that would be great to see. You know, I don't know if I'd want to stay there, but I'd like to be able to go back and see it! Or the 19th Century. I'd love to go to, like, industrial London in the 1840s. Walk down the streets of Manchester with Frederick Engels as he's observing the poverty the working class is in. Manchester in the 1840s. I'd love to do that. I have this kind of, you know, such an attraction for the past. I'd love to be able to go back and actually witness it.

What did you learn about yourself from the Blues and the Roots folk music?

I guess, I don't know. It's difficult to answer, maybe. It's not only blues, old blues music that I like. I like lots of kinds of older forms of music. Aline (Crumb) says what you learn from old music is that poverty and suffering make good art. It's not just that. What you really learn from that, aside from just the enjoyment of the music, is that modern popular music business has taken the ability away from people to make authentic music. You know, what you look for– what I look for in music is authenticity. But I have actually a little bit of optimism about that. I think that the authenticity might come back now that the music business can't actually sell a commodity anymore. There's no more records to be sold, or not much. They're can't– they're not gonna sell like billions of copies of records anymore. So the musicians and people who like to play music will have to be satisfied with just playing it on a small scale and mostly for the love of it and not to get rich, not to become rock stars anymore. And you know, you just have to have a love of the music and play it for that reason and that keeps it authentic. You know I like all kinds of old music. I love old Greek music. It's wonderful music. Great. And surprising is that there was a lot of music recorded in Greece in those early days, in the 1920s and 30s and 40s. A lot of music was recorded there. Surprising. Who was buying these records? I mean, the Greeks were poor. They didn't have the money for that. Who was buying them? That's a lot of recordings.

Greeks were rich families, lived in Alexandria, Egypt, Asia Minor coast, Smyrna, Konstantinoupole (Istanbul) and New York, Astoria, Chicago, California, Texas...

Did they buy records by those like, of like peasant music from Epirus or even Rembetiko? Would rich people even appreciate that music? I don't– I doubt it. So who was buying those records of– by those kind of people? This kind of peasant folk music that was recorded in the regions of Greece. It's great, it's great music. Great. I love it.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched you emotionally?

Well, my grandchildren, as I said.

If you would change one thing in the world, and of course it would become a reality, what would you like that be?

Well, when I meditate –I meditate as often as I can, trying to meditate every day– I often find myself demanding or entreating the universe to just raise the general level of intelligence and awareness of the human race. And to enlighten the human– or to bring a more advanced state of awareness to more people. I don't know if that's possible. It's like trial by fire. It seems like we have to go through this suffering and learn through suffering to learn wisdom – which doesn't seem to be something that's just handed to us. I don't know.

Yeah. It's something like Shangri La...

Yeah, I just don't know. It's not Shangri La, but just, there's so much stupid stuff that continues to go on and people fighting over the stupidest things. It's incredible. The belief systems that keep people– and often greed and brutality. You would like people to be more compassionate, more aware of them, you know? Sympathetic to the suffering of other people, you know? And not be so selfishly motivated to –I don't know, I mean. Part of the human condition and human nature is that some people are just going to go for power and domination over other people. We're just gorillas or just like apes that way, or chimpanzees, you know? There's always going to be the powerful alpha ones that have to dominate everyone else. I don't know. I don't know.

What is your favorite motto of life? What would you like to ask Mr. Natural?

Gosh. I don't know…"Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you." [Laughter] I don't know. That's a hard thing. That's another one. That's a hard thing.

I don't even think about Mr. Natural anymore. I haven't even drawn that character for 10 years. It's over, it's finished.

How do you describe and what characterize your philosophy of life?

Well, I can't sum it up. That's simply– characterize my philosophy of life? I don't know. I can't even begin to do such a thing. Like my brother Charles used to say, "Perhaps, most of all, what we need is just room to breathe." [Laughter] And he also used to say, you know "It's every man's responsibility to become as enlightened as he can." Everyone's responsibility–He also used to say "How perfectly goddamned delightful it all is to be sure." These are all from my brother Charles.

Interview © by Michael Limnios -- Transcript by John Russo

Self-portraits, Jack Kerouac, Lightnin' Hopkins, Keep on Truckin' © by Robert Crumb

Copyright Notice: All text on this blog is copyright © Michael Limnios 2015—all rights reserved.

           

                                              

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