Desperation is just another form of madness. Especially the quiet kind. Escaping it can be tricky. But when you do, you find you are freer than you’ve ever been. You suddenly find yourself pushed along, bobbing up and down in a raging river of art and ideas you can’t extract yourself from—nor do you want to. Those ideas form suddenly, flash out of nowhere, and you find you’re hooked for life. You become so thoroughly engrossed and, before you know what’s happening, you look up and find you’re changed forever. But it’s just art, some might say. Not worth the time, doesn’t do anything, elitist, in the clouds, over your heads, transient. Oscar Wilde stated, “All art is quite useless.” The artist Philippe Benichou counters, “Art is who we are. It facilities self-realization.” Art is life-changing. That is its purpose. It fosters change. Without change, the Arrow of Time falters, stops, falls to Earth and burns. Memory no longer blossoms into a future game. You’re stuck in a humorless past of bad temper and desperate ideology.
Robert Crumb was one of those agents of change that come along once in a generation; desperation was one of his many modes of madness. He never escaped his neuroses. A good thing for us. His madness—in all its glory—is represented in his drawings and illustrated comics. For me and a multitude of others who shared his off-the-wall, cracked sense of humor, he came along at just the right time. He emerged from the cocoon of the fifties and stepped into the turbulent sixties just as I was of protesting age, smoking and joking, rebelling against American authoritarianism and just about anything I could lay my hands on. Pot was the opposite of alcohol, so, of course, I did pot—but I fired it up with alcohol and the heavy rock coming out of the woodwork at the time.
The fifties had come and gone, but not for Crumb. He brought it all back, lampooning the modes and mores of those times. He wasn’t a hippie and he was a hippie. Neither here nor there. That was—and still is—Crumb. Still relevant and irreverent to this day. Back in the sixties he became the preeminent rock star of the underground comix movement that began with Zap Comix in 1968, along with others like S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Shelton, Spain Rodrigues, Rick Griffin and Robert Williams—the masthead of Zap. They were the ones I looked to for take-down humor and relief from the cookie-cutting cardboard life of the fifties, those lives our fathers and mothers lived (or pretended to live). Zap was extreme satire for those of us willing to take it for a ride. No one was more out of bounds than Crumb and company. There was no such thing as PC. No one was safe. Zap lit into one and all, including the artists creating the strips.
A New Identity
Zap Comix fostered in me a love for counterculture, stamped a new identity on me. I always knew these feelings were lurking inside me, even at a young age. In the fifties, when I was ten, I looked around at my world and understood that something wasn’t right; life was too bucolic, not real. Zap Comix made me think in a new way. I started to go against the grain. Helped me break free of what my parents stood for and what the good old USA stood for, what it stands for even more so today: Greed above all. “I pledge allegiance to the greed of the United States of America, and to the banks for which it stands, the one percent, divisible, with oppression and inequity for all.” Yeah, that could come right out of Crumb. He gave it to me.
Along with a several New Yorker covers and Janis Joplin’s first album cover, Crumb illustrated a few of Bukowski’s books, which complimented Buk’s work. He also did the line drawings for Ed Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. All outsiders, like Crumb himself. He grew up in the fifties in Philadelphia; his father was in the military and later became a salesman. It was a rigid upbringing. Crumb became a greeting card illustrator for The American Greeting Card Company in Cleveland, got married and had a child. He experimented with LSD for the first time. It changed his life. He took off with some friends to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco on a whim, leaving his wife and child behind. She later moved out to be with him. Here, in the counterculture of the hippies, he blossomed. He met the other underground cartoonists, and they, in turn, formed Zap Comix.
When I graduated from college in 1971 I started a garden service with my friend, Sven Hamsun. We called it Snoid and Snoid. Straight out of Crumb. In a complete tip of the hat to R. Crumb we named all our tools, and as stoned as we were when we went to work, we called them by name— made them almost human. Ready the Rake or Speedy the Spade. It made us laugh and enjoy our work more than we should have. Raking dirt in ninety-degree weather, eight hours a day, five days a week wasn’t my idea of fun. We even called my ‘55 Ford Pickup “Trusty Truck.” You could, if you were stoned enough—which we were—see the headlights as eyes, the grill as a mouth smiling back at you. Good old Trusty, long dead, stoned and gone. But not forgotten.
Never Going Back
I have never gone back to the old ways. Crumb and the underground cartoonists made me see the world in a different light. Nothing is black and white. There are many shades and sides to almost everything. Except, of course, Trump. Now that’s something made of pure evil. Nothing more, nothing less. Nowadays, Crumb lives in the south of France. He still draws, but has removed himself from the caldron of toxic stew that is the USA. We need more from R. Crumb, need him to lampoon this amoral and corrupt president and his amoral supporters. Like he did back in the sixties—and with a vengeance. That’s what we need. As Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That is Crumb’s world—and ours. The only way to defeat it is to poke fun at it. Our only escape.