Vol. 3, Issue #14 August 1st - August 14th, 2008

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

R. Crumb as Disc-Jockey

Album covers by great artists are nothing new; the earliest I can think of is “Lonesome Echo” by Jackie Gleason which features a Salvador Dali image from the late-1950s. Yet a decade later the concept between fine art and commercial art would forever be blurred by the movement in San Francisco, where the famous psychedelic artists, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Greg Irons, Mouse & Kelly, and many others were creating commercial art (concert posters) so beautiful that there was a demand for them long after the concerts were over, and at the same time they were publishing underground comix and creating album covers that defined a generation.

Robert Crumb got caught up in that movement almost by accident. He moved to San Francisco, dropped acid, and felt like it did something to his head. He created the first underground comix that really had an impact on the culture, “R. Crumb’s Comics & Stories,” which he sold out of a baby carriage on the streets, and “Zap” #0. Crumb did one concert poster, and then his friend, Janis Joplin, got him to do the “Cheap Thrills” cover for her band Big Brother & The Holding Company. It was a heady time for an artist who didn’t even care for rock music.

Crumb’s status in the psychedelic art world was equal to that of a rock star. Many of his images became iconic, like the “Keep on Truckin’” poster and (heavily bootlegged) bumper sticker, the “Stoned Agin!” (sic) poster, and his comic characters Mr. Natural and Fritz The Cat. However, as the leader of the underground comix movement he made his most important impact in his chosen medium. While his fellow cartoonists were exploring uncharted waters, usually with a mix of LSD-induced spiritualism and a wry wink at their graphic ancestors (such as the “Air Pirates,” who drew comics of Mickey Mouse smuggling pot and having wild sex with Minnie) or simply giving away to their ids (such as S. Clay Wilson’s violent, sexual panels of filthy gay pirates and obese lesbian bikers chopping off each other’s genitals) Crumb was doing autobiographical works on his dysfunctional family that you prayed were nothing but bizarre fantasy, yet they all turned out to be real. (See the Terry Zwigoff documentary “Crumb” for full details).

In the midst of all his successes Crumb often utilized words and images from his obsession over jazz, country, and blues music from the 1920s-1930s. As a teenager he known to walk to through the black sections of town and find elderly people who still had ancient 78 R.P.M. records they were willing to sell. He released three 78s himself in the 1970s, just as the speed was disappearing on turntable controls, and a full album with his band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders - one track even appeared on the first Dr. Demento compilation “Dr. Demento’s Delights” in 1975. Shortly afterward he struck a deal with Yazoo Records, which was one of the first record companies to reissue music from the 1920s, to create covers for their albums. Crumb went on to illustrate many other obscure record covers, and records by his own band. Over the last decade some of his more notable tittles have been the compilation “The Music Never Stops - Roots of The Grateful Dead” and a series for Shout Factory Records, “Heroes of The Blues.”

Every now and then I have the need to go back and cleanse myself in the cool waters of music’s past. This summer was one of those times, and as I had also started going back to Crumb’s work, it seemed like a natural progression to explore the albums he illustrated. The first thing I discovered was that those old Yazoo albums were worth their weight in gold; on eBay none ever got sold for less than $45, and some have gone into the hundreds. I was able to find a limited edition of 10-inch Robert Johnson picture disc featuring Crumb’s portrait of him on the front with a drawing of a 78 on the flip side for $40. After one play I drove to the record store and bought “The Complete Robert Johnson” double-disc set. I had forgotten how profound Johnson’s devil music could be.

Next up was Blind Boy Fuller, one of my heroes. I had lost my disc from the Columbia/Legacy series, so I replaced it with the Yazoo/Crumb covered CD “Truckin’ My Blues Away.” While Columbia used cleaner recordings for their reissue, there’s something to be said for the aesthetic of scratches, especially when listening to old 78s. Equally as fine is the Yazoo/Crumb covered Charlie Patton disc “King of The Delta Blues,” which features some sides I never heard before. Of course no blues collection is fun without a few risqué discs, so I ended up with a collection of Bo Carter, “Banana in Your Fruit Basket,” and a various artists collection “Please Warm My Weiner,” which features such subtle titles as “”You Put It In, I’ll Take It Out” by Papa Charlie Jackson and “Elevator Papa, Switchboard Mama” by the great Butterbeans & Susie.

Two other note worthy collections with Crumb covers is the 2-CD Yazoo set “The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of,” which collects some of the rarest 78s known to man - the biggest names on the discs are the Memphis Jug Band and Memphis Minnie & Joe McCoy (Led Zeppelin fans will know Minnie’s name from the writing credits of “When The Levee Breaks.”) The book “R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country” collects Crumb’s artwork from three series of cards he did and includes a CD featuring essential spiritual nourishment from Blind Willie McTell. King Oliver, Jellyroll Morton, and many others. It’s probably the most interesting as Crumb choose the selections himself.

Following Crumb’s covers is like following his comics, some are silly, some are hilarious, and some are so dark that they are scary, but as I’ve tried to get through to everyone; coming face to face with the blues can be a profound experience, and if Crumb can’t guide you through it, nobody can.

It almost makes you wonder, what would a music collection put together by Dali or Picasso would sound like?

Anyway, as Jake Blues said, buy all of the blues records you can buy.

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