Cartoonist R. Crumb Assesses 21 Cultural Figures, from Dylan & Hitchcock, to Kafka & The Beatles


Any fan of “under­ground” com­ic artist Robert Crumb knows that the man has no shy­ness about his pref­er­ences: not in jazz music, not in pol­i­tics, and cer­tain­ly not in the female form. Alex Wood, co-oper­a­tor of the offi­cial R. Crumb site (pic­tured with Crumb above), has dis­cov­ered that the artist’s opin­ions offer a vivid win­dow into the artist’s mind. “Over the years, talk­ing with Robert about many dif­fer­ent things, I’ve been sur­prised by some of the things he likes and dis­likes,” Wood writes. “We all know he loves old music from the ear­ly part of the last cen­tu­ry, and does­n’t like rock music. But then he says he likes Tom­my James and the Shon­dells, and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs? So in a dis­cus­sion in May, 2011, I asked his opin­ion on a list of peo­ple in the news past and present.” This became part one of the series “Crumb on Oth­ers,” which has at this point grown to sev­en full pages.

Below, we offer you a selec­tion of the rough­ly 150 fig­ures from music, film, visu­al art, and let­ters Crumb has so far assessed, his reac­tions rang­ing from high praise to out­right dis­missal to amus­ing anec­dotes of his own encoun­ters with the lumi­nar­ies in ques­tion. With these, you can see how your notes on the likes of Bob Dylan, Alfred Hitch­cock, Philip K. Dick, and Charles Dar­win com­pare with those of the cre­ator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Nat­ur­al, the hand that gave us “Keep on Truckin’,” and the lead­ing light of of Zap Comix — a lumi­nary who has gen­er­at­ed no small amount of high praise, out­right dis­missal, and amus­ing anec­dote him­self. Here are the remain­ing parts. Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

On Mark Twain: “Tom Sawyer and Huck­le­ber­ry Finn don’t do that much for me. But his lat­er stuff, he gets more cranky as he gets old­er. His cri­tique gets more inter­est­ing. When I was 15, I read What Is Man? and it made a pro­found impres­sion on me. It changed my life. It’s all about pre­des­ti­na­tion ver­sus freewill. He was a big believ­er in pre­des­ti­na­tion. He didn’t think we had any free will.”

On Bob Dylan: “I hate his voice. I can’t stand to hear him sing. I thought some of the songs that he wrote in the mid-60s were kind of clever, with clever lyrics. But I just can’t stand to hear him or see him per­form. And I think his heart is in the right place a lot of times, you know. Some­one told me he was an afi­ciona­do of old 20s, old time music, and that he lis­tens to the same kind of stuff I like.”

On Walt Dis­ney: “When I was a lit­tle kid in the 50s, we were pro­found­ly enthralled by Dis­ney, and pro­found­ly affect­ed by the Dis­ney vision. But to my taste, the whole thing starts to decline in the ear­ly 1950s. The last one that I think is a tru­ly vision­ary work is Alice In Won­der­land. Begin­ning with Peter Pan cir­ca 1953 it starts to slide into some­thing too cor­po­rate.”

On Janis Joplin: “Sad case, very sad case. She tried to act like she was hard and tough, but she wasn’t at all. She was soft and vul­ner­a­ble. She drank a lot, and got a lot of bad advice. She was sur­round­ed by vul­tures and vam­pires and scoundrels, and they just did her in. She final­ly end­ed up face-down in her own vom­it alone in some hotel room; too much hero­in and alco­hol, 27 years old.”

On Alfred Hitch­cock: “I talked to some­body who knew Kim Novak, some old­er woman, and Kim Novak told her shock­ing things about Alfred Hitch­cock and his sex­u­al pro­cliv­i­ties. That kind of sur­prised me. I don’t know why. I guess when you look at Hitch­cock you don’t see a guy with an aggres­sive sex­u­al libido. Just goes to show you can nev­er tell a book by its cov­er. I ought to know that by now.”

On The Bea­t­les: “Some of the last stuff they did, you know, it kind of gets dark, and that’s more inter­est­ing to me, the last stuff they did before they broke up. Well, that and the music they did before they actu­al­ly start­ed record­ing under Bri­an Epstein. The only way you can hear that, I think, is to see the doc­u­men­taries where it shows them play­ing in Ham­burg and the Cav­ern Club. Before Bri­an Epstein got ahold of them and cleaned them up and made them over into those cute mop-tops and put them in those mod suits. Before that, they were greas­er guys – leather jack­ets and greasy hair. And they just played this sort of dri­ving, hard rock-a-bil­ly music. And they were real­ly good at that.”

On Pablo Picas­so: “I once wrote that I envied Picas­so, because he was the type of artist who didn’t let any­thing stand in the way of his art. He would just slam the door on his wives, his girl­friends, his chil­dren – any­body, when it was time to do his art. I always envied that about him. Also his pow­er­ful, pen­e­trat­ing, hyp­not­ic way with women. I envied that about him too.”

On Franz Kaf­ka: “Before I did that book on Kaf­ka, I had nev­er read him and didn’t know any­thing about him. But once I took that book project on, then I had to read all his stuff. And then I real­ly got to like him. And while work­ing on that project, I felt a very close kin­ship with Kaf­ka. It was very strange. I start­ed feel­ing deeply con­nect­ed to Kaf­ka some­how. Some­thing I hadn’t expect­ed at all.”

On Charles Bukows­ki: “Love ’im, love his writ­ing. He was a very dif­fi­cult guy to hang out with in per­son, but on paper he was great. One of the great Amer­i­can writ­ers of the late 20th Cen­tu­ry. [ … ] The last time I saw Bukows­ki, he came to this par­ty in San Fran­cis­co, it was a poet­ry read­ing. And these two women that I knew  they just kind of closed in on Bukows­ki. One was talk­ing to him in one ear and the oth­er was talk­ing to him in his oth­er ear. He was stand­ing there with a beer bot­tle in each hand and get­ting drunk as fast as he could. And the last moment I saw him, they were lead­ing him off to the bed­room.”

On William Bur­roughs: “He was a very eccen­tric char­ac­ter; very eccen­tric ideas and thoughts. He tried all kinds of strange, avant-garde psy­chother­a­pies. He was into psy­chic exper­i­men­ta­tion. He built him­self an orgone box based upon the the­o­ries of Wil­helm Reich. He lat­er got involved in Sci­en­tol­ogy and had this E‑meter and used it as a way to psy­chi­cal­ly clear him­self. He said it was his elec­tri­cal Oui­ja board. He tried oth­er stuff too, like out of body expe­ri­ence. I can relate to all that stuff because I’m inter­est­ed in all that fringe, psy­chic exper­i­men­ta­tion also. But he was very seri­ous about that stuff.”

On Bet­tie Page: “She had the most per­fect body and the cutest face of all in that pin­up era of the 1940s and 1950s. She was the gold stan­dard. There was nobody supe­ri­or to her phys­i­cal­ly. And her pos­es, she always looked cheer­ful and whole­some, she nev­er looked sleazy. It didn’t mat­ter if she was pos­ing in a sado­masochis­tic set­up with those high heel boots and whips, it always looks like it’s just a fun­ny game to her, you know? She could have a ball-gag in her mouth and she looks like the girl next door just hav­ing fun.”

On Woody Allen: One of my favorite movies of his was Crimes and Mis­de­meanors. It was a great movie. In that movie, there was an esteemed oph­thal­mol­o­gist, very respect­ed in his pro­fes­sion. He has this mis­tress, this neu­rot­ic woman and she’s threat­en­ing to expose him and the secret affair he’s hav­ing. She threat­ens to come over to his house and make a big scene and ruin his life. He also has a broth­er who’s involved in the crime syn­di­cate. So he goes to the broth­er and the broth­er has her killed by a pro­fes­sion­al. All the main male char­ac­ters in the movie, I’ve come to sus­pect that they’re all parts of Woody Allen’s per­son­al­i­ty. The respect­ed oph­thal­mol­o­gist is part of him; this nerdy, ide­al­is­tic doc­u­men­tary film-mak­er — that’s part of him. And there’s this real­ly arro­gant com­e­dy writer/director played by Alan Alda who plays such a jerk, and that’s part of Woody Allen also; very inter­est­ing. And I sus­pect that movie is kind of — and I don’t even know how aware of it he was — a con­fes­sion. It was right around the time that whole scan­dal with Mia Far­row’s daugh­ter hap­pened — maybe right before — because Mia Far­row was in it. But, the oph­thal­mol­o­gist gets away with it.”

On Philip K. Dick: “I’ve actu­al­ly nev­er read any of his books. All I ever read was inter­views with him and that account he gave of his reli­gious expe­ri­ence — his mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ence. The whole expe­ri­ence… the way he described it, it was great. I should read his books but I nev­er got around to it. I was nev­er big on sci­ence fic­tion, but he was always more inter­est­ing and imag­i­na­tive than a lot of sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers.” (Crumb illus­trat­ed Dick­’s “meet­ing with God.”)

On Charles Dar­win: “I nev­er real­ly read Dar­win or stud­ied much about him. I have the most broad, gen­er­al idea about his the­o­ries of nat­ur­al selec­tion and evo­lu­tion. But I do know that when a lot of upper class Eng­lish peo­ple start­ed read­ing his books, and his the­o­ries began to be wide­ly known in the 1870s, it cre­at­ed a huge change that has­n’t been wide­ly rec­og­nized by his­to­ri­ans, to my knowl­edge. Peo­ple’s atti­tudes toward reli­gion changed due to his book, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the upper class­es in Eng­land, they stopped con­sid­er­ing it their absolute duty to go to church and be a good church-going per­son. A lot of the upper class dropped out, let their church mem­ber­ship lapse. Before that. they all went to church, for appear­ance sake if noth­ing else. But after Dar­win, that all changed.”

On Jack Ker­ouac: “When I was 17, I read On The Road, and it sick­ened me, because my reac­tion was, ‘Oh God, these guys are out there hav­ing so much fun. I’m not hav­ing any fun at all. I’m just sit­ting here in my par­ents house. But them — the girls, the adven­tures, they’re just like hav­ing a fuckin’ lark On The Road.’ ”

On Jean-Paul Sartre: “A fun­ny guy, Sarte’s a fun­ny guy. You know, peo­ple don’t think of him as fun­ny because he was so seri­ous about exis­ten­tial­ism and com­mu­nism and stuff like that. [ … ] He wrote a book about his child­hood that was pret­ty fun­ny. It’s very self-dep­re­cat­ing, and he writes about what a lit­tle bour­geois, arro­gant shit he was as a kid. Fun­ny guy, I like Sarte.”

On Michelan­ge­lo: “The guy is just like glo­ri­fy­ing the male body. It’s all about writhing, mus­cu­lar male bod­ies. And even the women, they have male bod­ies with tits past­ed on. The guy’s not into women, you can tell. He’s not into fem­i­nine at all. He’s not inter­est­ed in the round, ellip­ti­cal charms of the female form. No, he’s inter­est­ed in the lumpy, mus­cu­lar male body. And the whole [Sis­tine] Chapel is noth­ing but that.”

On Hen­ry Miller:  “Just like Ker­ouac, I was about nine­teen when I read him, and again, I was dev­as­tat­ed because he was hav­ing too much fuck­ing fun. He was fuck­ing so many women. He was so suc­cess­ful with women, it made me sick. He’d brag about how he came on to some woman on the street and end­ed up fuck­ing her in the bush­es. I thought, ‘God, how does he do that?’ It made me sick with envy. But try­ing to read him lat­er, I thought he was way, way, too long-wind­ed. I thought he need­ed seri­ous edit­ing.”

On Orson Welles: “I don’t under­stand why some peo­ple are so impressed by that guy. The most enter­tain­ing Orson Welles thing I’ve ever heard was some out­takes from a radio com­mer­cial that he was doing. And he’s real­ly in a bad mood and he’s insult­ing the pro­duc­ers and tech­ni­cians in the stu­dio and telling them, ‘This is a lot of shit I hope you know.’ ”

On Hunter Thomp­son: “I met him a cou­ple of times. He used to hang out at that Mitchell Broth­ers The­ater on O’Far­rell Street in San Fran­cis­co, which was a strip joint run by the Mitchell Broth­ers. There was this kind of like Irish-Jour­nal­ist-Mafia that used to hang around there. He and these oth­er Irish char­ac­ters from San Fran­cis­co who were into jour­nal­ism there, news­pa­per guys, they hung around there for some rea­son, I don’t know why. But Thomp­son did a lot of cocaine and drank, and then he would go on these long ‘cocaine raps,’ rant­i­ng and rav­ing. But by the time I met him, y’ know, he was already well-advanced to being real­ly fuck­ing out of his mind.”

On Mar­tin Scors­ese: “I think Good­fel­las is prob­a­bly the best film about the mod­ern Amer­i­can crime syn­di­cates. Casi­no was kind of a fol­low-up to Good­fel­las, and I did­n’t think it was quite as good. Prob­a­bly Good­fel­las got so much praise it kind of went to his head so every­body got togeth­er and made this indul­gent film. It had it’s good parts, it was good, it just was­n’t as good as Good­fel­las. For one thing, there were too many close ups on DeNiro’s face. I just kept want­i­ng the cam­era to back-off. OK, you think the guy’s great look­ing, but Jesus, OK, it’s enough, back-off!”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Con­fes­sions of Robert Crumb: A Por­trait Script­ed by the Under­ground Comics Leg­end Him­self (1987)

Record Cov­er Art by Under­ground Car­toon­ist Robert Crumb

A Short His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca, Accord­ing to the Irrev­er­ent Com­ic Satirist Robert Crumb

R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Coun­try Fea­tures 114 Illus­tra­tions of the Artist’s Favorite Musi­cians

Robert Crumb Illus­trates Philip K. Dick’s Infa­mous, Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Meet­ing with God (1974)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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  • Sal Catania says:

    My favorite Mis­ter Nat­ur­al was the one were he is on a stage, and girl after girl come on the stage and bend over, and he kick them in the ass. This goes,on for a while, and he final­ly wipes his brow and says kick­ing ass all day sure is hard work.

  • Thomas Murphy says:

    Ah, my, my, my…how nice to hear what Crumb has to say about cul­tur­al heroes! More than any I’ve read so far (I’m still only halfway through them at this point), his com­ments on Dylan mir­ror mine: I can’t stand to lis­ten to him, either, or to look at that awful face of his. When­ev­er some­one like Dylan (or Spring­steen, or Stipe, or Elvis, or Mar­i­lyn, or any of the hun­dreds of oth­er totems we cher­ish) becomes dei­fied, any objec­tiv­i­ty will van­ish, and they can do no wrong. Prob­lem is, our media is such a strong force in today’s world that the images of these mag­i­cal char­ac­ters are always in our face, and there is lit­tle we an do about that. Are Brad and Ang­ie’s face star­ing at you with their hys­ter­i­cal­ly fash­ion­able smile, each and every time you stand tap­ping your foot in the check­out line? Why, yes! It must be because they are mag­i­cal! No, it must be because they are bet­ter shills than Gaga! (at least for the next few days…)

  • dougo13 says:

    Would have been nice to ask Crumb his views on the New ver­sion of Com­mu­nist Chi­na where they have now become (in many respects) the Unit­ed States he so vil­i­fied in his comics. I have yet to see the ques­tion posed to him any­where. The idea that every­one in the glo­ri­ous Peo­ple’s Repub­lic want­ed to stay poor and dis­en­fran­chised always struck me as false in his works…

  • Mark A. O'Blazney says:

    R speaks as well as he draws !!!!! Zing !!

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