Before resuming I should say this: Drug taking, by myself and others, really peaks in this chapter. It isn’t something I’m proud of or a thing I endorse. But it is the way it all happened.
By the end of ’68 I felt that I pretty much had all the how-tos of surviving on an everyday basis in the Lower East Side. I had a regulation steel pole police lock on the front door, locked gates on the windows and a loaded gun in my pocket. But I was about to find out that I still had a thing or two more to learn. One afternoon while I was out, a fire began in the 6th floor walk-up apartment right next to ours. No one seemed to be home next door, so when the firemen came, they came through our place, which Spain was in. But the windows next to the fire escape were in my room. Spain didn’t know where the keys to the window gates were, so the firemen ripped out one of the gates, entered the burning apartment and put out the fire. I’m not even sure that unit had a renter just then, but it sure wasn’t occupied after the fire–not legally anyway. And therein is the key to all that followed.
In the way of drugs, I was pretty sure I’d seen it all by this time, and that included sniffing glue. One time at Pratt, Bill Griffith came upon me and Roger Jacoby experimenting with it and did he ever raise the roof! He told us the stuff would kill us fast. He must have made a convincing case, because that was pretty much it for us with glue, as a drug, after that. But on the Lower East Side there were glue heads. We’d vaguely heard about them but never actually saw any. Well, we still never really saw them after that, but we sure were about to learn more about them. A band of glue heads started squatting in the burnt out apartment next door. We found that out when they robbed us in the most peculiar way I had yet experienced! They burrowed a hole, just like rodents would, from the burnt apartment to our pad! And here was another screwy wrinkle: Unlike most thieves who went for the pawnable stuff that they could turn into cash, these glue heads were cultural thieves! They stole my paintings! They took lots of back issues of The East Village Other. And they stole my records! Well, not all the records. They took all the LPs and 45s–all my rock ‘n roll. The 78s were left behind. I didn’t fully realize it at that moment but I think this was the actual beginning of the end for me and rock ‘n roll. When I later started to rebuild my record collection, it was the 78s and that era that I focused on.
But getting back to the robbery. I crawled through the hole into the burnt out apartment. No one was there and our stuff was gone. Well, there was a trail of East Village Others that led out the door of the burnt out pad and up one flight of stairs to the roof. And there, mystically and mysteriously, the trail went cold! We had no idea where they’d gone to, or if they would return. But return they did. But it was like some odd new kind of guerilla warfare. If we’d ever actually seen them we probably could have blown the little rats over, but never for the rest of the time that we occupied that apartment did we ever so much as see a single glue head!
In the immediate meantime I bought some plaster and filled the hole in with it. In fact when Trina showed up with the cartoonist Vaughn Bode, who had just come to town, I couldn’t shake hands with him because my hands were covered with plaster. Bode was very straight and buttoned down looking at the time. In appearance he reminded me of that Harvey Kurtzman character Goodman Beaver. There’s another guy who should have never taken drugs, but that’s another story. Over and above our own immediate problems, things were getting weirder on the street. The natives and the cops were getting just a bit sick and tired of hippies. It was particularly bad for chicks. Nobody bothered Trina when she was with me because it was generally known that I was packing. But it got worse and worse when she’d come to see me. She was getting fed up and was looking to get rid of her 4th Street boutique as well. The phantom glue heads struck again and I replastered. But the third time they hit us they got my gun! Spain and I looked at each other and came to an instant agreement: It was time to go.
The next day we moved our sorry asses over to a large loft on East 4th Street that used to belong to EVO‘s founder, Walter Bowart. It was now being used by EVO employees with housing emergencies, like us. At the time I think there was somebody from The Steve Paul Scene (which was vaguely connected to the EVO empire) living there, but he wasn’t around much. An interesting thing about this loft is that it was up above not one, but two Puerto Rican social clubs. There were usually guys hanging around the doors smoking joints, and they were friendly enough. In fact it was almost impossible to come or go from the loft without stopping to smoke with these guys and catch a buzz with them. It didn’t really seem like much of a problem to me and Spain.
Almost immediately two things happened. Spain was getting an itch to check out San Francisco and soon got a ride out there. He may have returned briefly after that, but it was pretty much the end of Spain in New York. Crumb had been urging us to get out of New York. He regarded the forty a week we were getting at EVO as peanuts. He told us flatly that if we moved out to San Francisco we’d be making a hundred a week doing comics in no time. What is more, he told us that since he and his wife had just had a kid they were on welfare to boot, and had no real financial problems whatsoever. The other thing that happened was that Trina finally sold her boutique and was also living at the loft with us. Not long after Spain left, she decided that she too wanted to make an exploratory trip out to San Francisco. Clearly it was in the air. Before she left she told me that she expected me to find a decent place for us to live by the time she got back. I got right on the stick and found a place on Mott and Houston. When Trina got back she grudgingly said it would do for the time being, but she expected me to fix it up a little, starting with pulling out all the nasty old linoleum and painting the floor. Well, I had to admit she had a point about the linoleum. When I pulled it up I found pieces of an old New York Daily News and the headline was the 1942 death of Carole Lombard in a plane crash!
Meanwhile, my Mother had had it with Simon. He and his girlfriend had been crashing at Mom’s apartment in White Plains for quite a while. I managed to find an apartment for them on the same floor of my new Mott Street digs. The idea was that he could help me doing comics. It might have worked. Strangely enough, Joel, my roughneck boss at EVO, kind of liked Simon. But the immediate effect of Simon’s newly close proximity to me was to put more strain on my already strained relationship with Trina. Trina had a lot of can-do pluck. She went out and found us a great storefront apartment on 2nd avenue and 9th Street, just a stone’s throw from the Fillmore East and the EVO office right above it. She’d just come into a small inheritance and was able to purchase it from its current tenants. This was illegal but everyone did it. Once we were installed, the rent wasn’t really all that much. Trina was no dope. It was a smart move. Other things were happening. Vaughn Bode had been powwowing about adding a new all-comics publication to the growing EVO line up. There was now a Screw knock-off called Kiss. They tried a gay publication called Gay Power but it didn’t last long. An astrology mag called The Acquairian Agent came and went even more quickly. Crumb and Spain had been in on the early talks about the comics project. Crumb had strongly urged for standard comic book format feeling (correctly) that this was the way of the future, and Spain was backing him up on that. But when Joel was ready to launch, Crumb and Spain were gone and so the tabloid Gothic Blimp Works was born. Vaughn was the top guy and Bhob Stewart and I were drafted in as assistants. But the hippy life was catching up with Vaughn and after two issues he abruptly split in a fairly unglued state, telling me he just couldn’t take the Lower East Side any more. Apparently he had tapped Bhob Stewart as his heir apparent, but my boss Joel didn’t know or care to know anything about that. He looked around and made me the new editor of the Blimp. I didn’t want to do it, but he said he’d give me fifty dollars a week over and above the forty I was already making, and further told me that I would have complete autonomy over what went into each issue. For legal reasons I was not privy to a guy named Peter Leggieri was officially the publisher, but Joel told me I didn’t have to show him anything in an issue until after it was printed. Bhob Stewart did come by once in a while with stuff, but seemed to be going through his own personal problems. I might have worked something out with him–God knows I was not too keen about the whole situation–but I saw less and less of him as time went by.
I wasn’t a real great editor. The workload was catching up with me and more and more and I started missing my EVO deadlines, so it was an increasingly rare week that I actually made a full ninety dollars from my combined jobs. And I was developing a bad speed habit trying to do it too, on top of all the pot and beer. And it got worse! A bunch a Learyites came to town (acidhead acolytes of Timothy Leary) and they were handing out super strong orange “Sunshine” acid tabs like it was candy. I was soon turning into an acidhead on top of everything else! The immediate effect of the acid was to bring out something weirdly messianic and altruistic in me. I painted a sign on the storefront showing my comics character Uncle Ed holding a big banner with the title “Comic Museum” on it. I then put up a pretty impressive exhibit of original comic art on the walls of the storefront. I had Crumb, Me, Spain, Wood, even Frazetta. Anything good I could beg borrow or steal! Then I opened it to the public, aave away free beer when I had it, and free issues of the Gothic Blimp to anyone that wanted them. And in the midst of it I continued to do my work to the extent that I could. I guess youth and enthusiasm was buoying me up to some extent.
One day, in the midst of all this a decidedly strange thing occurred! I admit that I was taking a lot of acid at this time, but I swear that what I’m about to tell you really did happen. One afternoon a decidedly strange and malnourished looking creature with a gnarly walking stick came hobbling into the open storefront of our place. Although he had a decrepitness about him, he couldn’t have been much more than a teenager. I had never seen him before, but he seemed to be quite aware of who I was. “I have much power,” he told me. “I create insects out of dirt!” he declared. And he chuckled weirdly as he said this! I thought I was a mess, but this guy was the worst burnt out druggie I had ever before beheld. “No, I don’t take drugs,” he said, as if reading my mind, “only glue!” And with that, he laughed his weird laugh again and hobbled out of my life forever! None of this was playing too good with Trina. At some point she said she needed a breather from me, and who could blame her? She told me she was going to take another trip out to San Francisco. I don’t know how I ever convinced her to take me with her on this trip to get away from me, but I did! Well! That was a truly amazing thing to see. The underground comics thing was just starting to really boom and it was so exciting! I made a pilgrimage to the fabled San Francisco Comic book Store over on Mission Street and met its founder, Gary Arlington, who gave us a celebrity welcome. So far as I know this was the first comics store, and our money was no good there. Rory Hayes worked behind the counter. He was putting together Bogeyman #2 and buttonholed me for a page. I soon had a place to draw it, too.
We went over to where the Crumbs lived on Haight Ashbury. Crumb was off in Detroit doing Motor City Comics, but his wife, Dana, was all smiles and offered to put us up. She had a photo of Spain on the mantlepiece, who was apparently having a fling with her while Crumb was out of town. Crumb was already well-known as a chaser so this did not seem unduly inappropriate. It was fascinating to suddenly be in the hallowed environment where Zap 1 and Zap 0 had come into being! But if Crumb was already actively collecting 78s, they must have been with him in Detroit. What I did find lying around were a lot of the ’60s LP compilations of ’20s music that so many 78 collectors initially cut their teeth on. They were new to me, and I played them plenty during the next ten or so days that we were there. One I especially loved was a reissue album of George Olsen and his Music sides mostly from the ’20s. I knew him because I’d been carrying around his 1928 side of “Sonny Boy” since the late ’50s. Another of Crumb’s reissue LPs that caught my ears was a compilation called 1927 which was just that: hit Victor records from the year 1927.
One I really loved was “Sam, the Old Accordian Man”, by the Williams Sisters, sounding very much like a precursor of The Boswell Sisters. There was also a cut of “Mississippi Mud”, by The Rhythm Boys, which was the vocal trio that more or less introduced Bing Crosby to the world. I wasn’t out the window crazy about that one, but I was surprised to know that Bing Crosby’s recording career went back that far. I was destined to find out much more about that in the years to come.
I looked up Don Schenker, who ran The Print Mint, and published something called The Yellow Dog. It had not gone to comic book format yet but was still a sort of broadside. He put the bee on me for a page too. I was starting to feel really energized as I worked on my Bogeyman and Yellow Dog pages over at Crumb’s place. I ran into Spain and he was all frothed up about a new record development too. He’d just bought the very first Jackson 5 single and couldn’t seem to get enough of it. He told me he hadn’t bought a single since 1959 but he just couldn’t resist buying this one. I was polite, but to be honest, I couldn’t see what he saw in it. Perhaps it was more evidence of my growing estrangement from rock ‘n roll, but I never really ever could see anything in the Jackson 5 or Michael Jackson. The hippie rock groups were leaving me colder too. Country Joe and The Fish struck me as flat out lame. And we went to an appearance of the politico rock group, The MC5, in Golden Gate Park. Remember “Up Against The Wall, Mother Fuckers”? Give me a break! Well, I knew I had obligations back in New York City. In fact I had already started a new EVO strip at Crumb’s: “Hector Perez, the Boy Vivisectionist.” When I finished it back in New York, it was a hit and got picked up by other underground rags all over the place. So I cranked out a few more issues of The Gothic Blimp Works, but I knew I had to get back to San Francisco as soon as I was able to. Trina felt the same way.
The speed was beginning to really tear me down, but I was hooked! Meanwhile Simon was going to hell in a basket. He’d gotten good and strung out on heroin and was becoming a real neighborhood embarrassment. The Blimp never really caught on. The tabloid size was all wrong. Still, by today’s standards we weren’t doing too bad. They were moving between fifteen and twenty-five thousand an issue. Then in the midst of all this, Gilbert Shelton came to town. He and his girlfriend crashed with us and I put the bee on him for a cover and a story for The Blimp. He drank and took speed, too (it really was an artist’s occupational hazard!). But he struck me as a genuinely good guy. He told me he was going to be driving back to San Francisco and if we were willing to chip in on gas, he’d take Trina and me with him. We jumped at it. Trina was now pregnant. We were all set for that California welfare scene.
I was fed up with New York and was also privately worried that maybe I’d ruined myself with speed ! Just before we left I was supposed to ride out with other EVO-ites to the big Woodstock Music festival. Peter Leggieri, nominal Blimp publisher, thought we could sell Blimps there. I took a pass and later heard that all the Blimps he brought were in the end given away. I simply had no interest in going. It sounded like BS to me. I had similarly skipped a ride to the 1968 Democratic Convention that the Yippees were promoting. That was bullshit for sure and left a bad taste in my mouth for these big organized hippy events. All that one got us was Richard Nixon! One news story that occurred just before we left with Shelton was the Sharon Tate murder. And that was kind of interesting. It was late 1969, now. The 60s were coming to an end and one of the things we did on the ride out to SF was to speculatively evaluate just how much lasting impact the 60s might or might not have had on the world. Trina said she felt that the humanizing effects of LSD might, in the end, be the greatest legacy of the 60s. No sooner had she put this forward than the Tate murder began to break. All the stuff about Charles Manson and his followers and how they were all stoned on acid when they did all their murders. Times were changing!
But the big news for me was that the week or so that it took for us to get to San Francisco gave me a chance to finally kick speed. That and being in the exciting new San Francisco environment seemed to really energize me. We rented a bungalow near Daly City and I started working harder than I ever had in my life. I was still drinking, but not every day. But San Francisco was a party town. Being a comic book guy at that time made you popular. There was always a party to go to somewhere and even speed started sneaking back on me. Now I’d just take it at parties so I could drink more. Trina was getting very pregnant and we were not getting along very well. One couple we met around this time that we both enjoyed were Jim and Margaret Osborne. They had a nice place in San Francisco chock full of interesting things: golden age comic art, cool old photos, old comics. They seemed like a kind of ideal couple and we spent a lot of time with them. Jim Osborne struck almost everyone as a rising star in underground comics. When I told Crumb I thought Osborne was the real goods, he came over one day when I was there to check it out for himself. Jim seemed to be a moderate drinker of wine at the time–nothing like the loose cannon I still was. So it was all the more shocking to me when I heard, around 2002, that Jim was dead of drink at age 58! I have never quite recovered from that news. I was recently talking to Crumb about Osborne and how shocked I was by his death and how I’d looked up to him. It really surprised me when Crumb said that he, too, had looked up to Osborne.
Around the middle of 1970 Simon unexpectedly hit town. He’d essentially run out of bullshit in New York, scraped together enough money for a bus ticket, and rode out to SF. He was totally broke and I was less than excited to see him. We had not exactly been on the best of terms when I left town. But, like me with speed, he seemed to have kicked his heroin habit on the ride out. Trina, needless to say, was not at all happy to see him, and frankly I didn’t know what I was going to do with him. Good old Gary Arlington came to my rescue. He said Simon could crash on the floor of the San Francisco Comic Book Store and could help Rory Hayes at the cash register for food money. It was truly a weight off my shoulders and the beginning of the high esteem I still feel for Gary Arlington. Simon managed to fit in rather well and was soon a well regarded part of the San Francisco underground comics scene.
One night over at Spain’s, a rather defining moment in my musical tastes occurred. The local Late, Late Show was slated to broadcast the 1932 movie The Big Broadcast starring Bing Crosby and featuring just about every other big pop music star on the radio that year. Besides Bing, it had appearances by Cab Calloway, the Boswell sisters, The Mills Brothers and many more. I won’t lie, we were full of beer that night, but it was fantastic! Bing was in his roaring prime, when he still had the great guitarist Eddie Lang with him. I’d had some inklings that perhaps Bing had really been good once upon a time, as opposed to the staid and starchy establishment figure he had evolved into by 1970. Probably the most significant of these occurred one Saturday afternoon sometime in the 1950s one Saturday afternoon when I had been sitting around with my old man while he played records. At some point he put on a 12-inch red Columbia reissue of an Ellington recording of “The St Louis Blues”. When the somewhat down and dirty vocal came on, my old man turned to me and said, “Do you know who that is?” When I said no, he said, “That’s Bing Crosby. It sure is a far cry from what he is now.” It was true! I later appropriated that disk after Dad left. It and an alternate take I later acquired sufficiently different to merit reissue as well, were made around 2 a.m. in a New York recording studio. I think it is highly likely like they were all smoking something.
Well, within days of seeing The Big Broadcast, Trina and I were over at the Osbornes. I was looking through their LPs when I came upon a double LP set Bing Crosby in Hollywood. And what a treasure trove it was! It had sides going back to Bing’s movie debut in 1930 in the big Paul Whiteman two strip color extravaganza, The King of Jazz. It had all the stuff he made records of from The Big Broadcast and every other movie he made going through to about half way into 1934.
Margaret Osborne also played me a couple of cuts of 1929 Ethel Waters sides that stayed with me too: “What Did I Do to be So Black and Blue” and “Am I Blue”.
Well, that did it. I borrowed the Crosby set from the Osbornes and got my own copy just as soon as I could. I remember at that time that I had just acquired two rock ‘n roll albums — one by Leon Russell and a Joe Cocker album. I guess they were okay, but suddenly, once and for all, I really felt like I was over rock ‘n roll. What I basically wanted to do now was find more Bing Crosby. I started rooting around in junk stores and quickly got the lay of the land on Bing as to what was good and what was not. In a nut shell it seemed that he started slowly going downhill in 1934, or thereabouts. I later put together that part of this seemed to have to do with the untimely 1933 death of his best friend, jazz guitar man Eddie Lang. Also, I think that like Elvis he was a victim of his own overwhelming success. Lucky for me lots of 78 reissues of his first really big year, 1931, were fairly easy to find. I was hooked.
There was another interesting incident that occurred during the Summer of 1970. I ran into Gilbert Shelton who told me that he, Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Spain and another artist buddy of his from Texas, Jim Franklin, were all going to fly down to Santa Monica to paint a bar there. No money, but all we could eat and drink while we painted designs all over the bar for about three days. I think on the last day Robert Williams showed up too. That last day we all took some speed to put the high polish on it and got out of there. While there one night I got into a conversation with Crumb about collecting 78s, and he asked me if I wanted to trade some with him for original art. Or maybe it was me asking him. I forget. Anyway, he stopped back over at the rented bungalow where Trina and I were still living and looked over my modest pile of sides. And really, it wasn’t much at this point. While in Santa Monica I asked him if he’d swap me a five-pager that recently appeared called “Boingy Baxter”. When he told me that one was traded away or sold, I mentioned the eight-page “Lenore Goldberg and Her All Girl Commandos” that had just appeared in Motor City Comics. It had to be the beer talking because I can’t imagine what I could have possibly had in my pile of 78s that could be worth a thing like that. But he came right back with, “Sure, I’ll trade you that.”
The next day, if I remembered it at all, I would have dismissed it as so much bar trash talk. But Crumb remembered, and a few days later there he was, sifting through my sides. He ended up with a pile perhaps a little over an inch high. Nothing big. He got that 1928 George Olsen record of “Sonny Boy” that I had been carrying around for the last dozen years. I can’t remember what else, but it couldn’t have been much because I didn’t have anything that valuable! I was starting to feel kind of cheesy about the whole situation and said, “That’s ridiculous. Take some more. So he dove back in and added my 1929 Okeh of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” by Louis Armstrong (with a small rim chip) with “What did I Do To Be So Black And Blue” on the other side. That stung a little. That was a side I really cherished and frequently played. He saw the expression on my face and said, “I’ve got an Armstrong LP that has it. I’ll give it to you the next time I see you,”
And he did indeed give me an Armstrong LP although it didn’t have “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. Hey, at least I was polite enough not to bring it up. I still had a long way to go yet in terms of evolving into a more mature human being, but at least I was trying.
You know, that’s another thing about writing down all this stuff. In this post in particular I am not really liking the picture of myself that I am describing. I would like to think that I have become a better person since those old days. Small wonder that I don’t really enjoy talking about them that much. Then why am I talking about them? I don’t know. But I guess one of the things I might be trying to do is figure myself out in the ongoing quest to better understand this human existence we all share. I’m sure it all has some greater meaning, I just can’t quite put my finger on what that greater meaning is. I have a feeling that maybe some day the humans that come after us will evolve more and be able to better figure it out. But in the meantime, I think we each individually have the opportunity to learn how to live better lives. It’s a thing that I am trying to do.
Later, I managed to find another copy of Olsen’s “Sonny Boy.” I even found another copy of the 1929 Armstrong record of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with an even bigger rim chip. And you know something? When I listen to it now, I can understand why it wasn’t included on the LP of sides from that period that Crumb gave me. By the way, that album was stellar. If I played it once, I played it a hundred times. The really huge attraction on it is its two consecutive takes of Armstrong’s record of “Star Dust”, where you can actually hear him evolving his classic presentation of that wonderful song. The trouble with Armstrong’s 1929 “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is that at the time he made that record, he was performing that arrangement of it every night on Broadway. It’s slick. It has all his playing skill at its peak and his great vocal phrasing, but unlike so many other of his classic performances it’s too much of a set piece. It lacks his wonderful spontaneity.
As of June 1970, I was the father of a sweet little girl named Casey. I tried to rise to the occasion, but it wasn’t going well. In some ways I had little to complain about. California welfare turned out to be everything Crumb said it was. As long as I stuck with Trina and the kid, I had nothing to worry about financially. We had max welfare and food stamps over and above what I was making in comics. But Trina and I were not getting along at all; fights all the time. Then at the end of the year something else happened. The porn industry was fast emerging and we knew plenty of people involved in it. One night Trina and I went to an incredibly bacchanalian party. There were naked girls running around and plenty of people I knew, too, including Simon and Gary Arlington. Trina was not enjoying herself and, to my annoyance, wanted to go. Simon said, “Aw let her go. You can catch a ride home later with me and Gary.”
It must have been one of those fateful moments where the Kim Deitch luck kicked in. I grumbled but took a streetcar home with Trina. The next day I got a call from one of Crumb’s girlfriends (who I was also going with a little bit on the side). She told me that Simon and Gary were in a bad auto accident. She did her best to put a good face on it and told me that they were going to survive. But I was not prepared for the bad condition I found Simon in when I visited him at the hospital. It was weeks before he really came to his senses and he was never really the same after that. Gary was in better shape and really apologetic about the whole thing. It wasn’t long after that that Trina finally had her fill of me. We sort of broke up. That is to say, she threw me out and I moved in with Gary Arlington over on Valencia Street. And that’s where things were at the start of 1971.
I was still taking care of our daughter on weekends and in truth still had a relationship going on with Trina. There was probably a better-than-even chance that we might have gotten back together again for the sake of the kid when something happened that changed all that. One night I was out to a party given by an animation enthusiast named Joe Deluca. Some cartoons were shown there made by a girl named Sally Cruikshank. I did not particularly hit it of with Sally that night. In fact it was Jim Osborne who initially started stepping out on Margaret with her. How anyone could step out on Margaret Osborne was more than me and Simon could rap our minds around, but there it was! But getting back to Sally and the party that night. One of the cartoons she showed was a three minute short called “Ducky”. For a soundtrack she had taken a circa 1920 or ’21 acoustic record by Ben Selvin, “Ain’t We Got Fun” which was the song Bosco was always singing in those early ’30s Loony Tunes. This impressed me.