Pacific Rim Review of Books

[ Back to Issue Features ]

R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country

review by Rick Van Krugel

238 pages, Illus. by Robert Crumb, text by Stephen Calt, David Jasen and Richard Nevins
Introduction by Terry Zwigoff
Abrams, New York, 2006
(book and CD, Can.$25.95)

My first two feelings upon reading/viewing/hearing this lovely little hard cover book and CD package were feelings of gratitude and affection: It came to the right person to review it, and an unusual gem like this is a true and pure labour of love and respect. Opening with Terry Zwigoff’s introductory words (Zwigoff is a long-time friend of R. Crumb and director of several fine films incl. the acclaimed 1994 documentary “Crumb”), we are treated to a beautifully produced and nice-to-hold feast of what I call Robert Crumb’s “serious” side.

A few words about the artist are in order before discussing his collection of Heroes. Crumb is best known for cute contributions to pop culture such as Mr. Natural and the “Keep on truckin’” shirts, bumper stickers and mud flaps (for which I don’t think he was ever compensated) and for his often shocking but more often truly hilarious “head comix” going back to the sixties.

True story: My wife, a former university fine arts major, accompanied me to a local showing of Zwigoff’s film when it was released; halfway through the film, watching him draw, she gasped “My God, I had no idea - he can draw like Raphael!”

This is a serious artist. I have heard him dubbed misogynistic, kinky, misanthropic, anti-Semitic, racist etc. by people who make the mistake of refusing to see past the surface of his work. Unfortunately, such things as racism, bullying, anti-Semitism, homophobia, murder and mayhem in general really do exist in our society; as it turns out, Robert Crumb, willing or unwilling, bears witness to it all. His virtue is in having the courage to pull no punches; his pen brilliantly screams at us with a unique and sometimes brutal voice of reason.

R. Crumb is something of a social outsider who never really was part of any particular popular “scene”; most often culturally identified as a hippie artist, he was never actually a hippie. Because of his time on the outside looking in (watching the documentary, I am under the impression this is often his own choosing) he has given us the outsider’s gift (common to all great satirists and comics), a compulsively-drawn and startlingly detailed vision of what people do to and with themselves, one another, and their world. In Crumb’s flawed universe (OK, in mine too) there are few things so clean and innocent as the soul and spirit of a nearly forgotten person playing and singing his or her heart out, captured for eternity in the three minutes of fame permitted upon the long spiral groove of an ancient and venerable “78”. For the reader who isn’t familiar with his own whimsically anachronistic and inspired musical efforts, I heartily recommend investigating Robert Crumb, musician; a new and different treat is in store for you.

These are predominantly people the majority of you have likely never heard of, but they are real. They are among Robert Crumb’s dear friends, simply but ably portrayed with the devout respect and sensitivity only a true friend could bring to a portrait. As a musician, I feel very deeply that these are musicians and singers who live on agelessly in their old recordings and in images such as these. The miniature portraits were originally created as small retro-style trading cards. Trading cards existed mainly in the form of packages of cards plus bubble gum when I was a kid in the 1950’s, but which also existed as a collectible premium packed in several kinds of products in the earlier twentieth century (tobacco, soap, cereal etc.).

On the face of each card is a print of an originally drawn or painted portrait of a band or individual performer, and on the reverse is a brief biographical write-up. The three sets of cards represented in this book were initially designed for the Yazoo company, to be included with re-issued vinyl LP collections of old 78 r.p.m. recordings, starting around 1980. As soon as I heard that the record company put the cards on the market in boxed sets as a way to make a little extra income (Yazoo ranks high in the labour of love dept.), I hurried to buy the two sets that were available in a local comic shop.

Even if you already know about, maybe even own sets of those original cards, this book is a must-have, not just for the hand-picked-by-R. Crumb 21 track CD of the wizards portrayed therein, but for the production value brought to his artwork, which is not only about four times the size (closer to that of the original drawings), but is much more vibrantly and faithfully reproduced than on the cards. I’m not knocking the cards, which are a delight, but the print upon their authentically pulpy card stock cannot rival the big beautiful way Crumb’s work shines back at us (112 times if I counted correctly) on quality book paper.

More than hundred works of art, vibrantly produced between hard covers, and a great CD to remind us these are real people. I can think of few $25 investments this enjoyable. But I will caution you to beware of the dark side; before buying it in a store, look in the back and make sure the CD is still there unless the book is being sold wrapped…the CD is attached with a temporary adhesive that makes it very easy to steal, and I’m told some CD’s are going missing…as Crumb loves showing us, its an imperfect world!

Rick Van Krugel
Victoria, B.C.