Well, the first thing I noticed when I got back was that life really seemed to be overwhelming my mother. She just didn’t seem to be quite her old self anymore. My brother Simon was now seventeen and had turned into a real handful. In the six months since I’d been gone he’d dropped out of high school and gone mod. I knew all about the Beatles and even saw their first movie, A Hard Day’s Night, just before we crossed the Pacific, probably in Tampa, Florida. But somehow I hadn’t gotten word of the Rolling Stones, which was something else again. The first thing I noticed when my brother played me their initial album was that they covered that song I’d heard the two sailors grooving to just before our ship sailed, “It’s All Over Now”. Well, that got my attention sure enough. But in general I was pretty amazed at how much they had synthesized and absorbed American r&b! Rock ‘n roll was back and, really, thanks largely to the Brits, better than ever. And even with a kind of scholarly lick to it that it never had before (or since).
I went to a Stones concert with my brother at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and who was ahead of me in the huge line? None other than Bill Griffith! He still had his lofty, snooty manner going on. We chatted for a few minutes and then I didn’t see him again for about five years! The concert was mayhem. You literally could not hear the band. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with myself now that I was back, but I was sure I did not want to go back to art school. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be an artist anymore. After drifting through a couple of low-end jobs, I somehow ended up working for a posh nut house in White Plains: New York Hospital. I could write a whole book about that place. Suffice to say, if this is what things were like in a high-end laughing academy, I’d sure hate to see what was going on in a low-end one! I lived in an employee dorm there which was a whole other kind of zoo. Lots of gays, black guys, and Irish immigrants. There was some crossover between these three distinct groups, but they really were, for the most part, three distinct social sets. I found a place among the black guys, and after a while I started to almost think I was black. Anyway, I was as closely involved with that culture as I can remember ever being before or since.
The big news in my life was that about six months into working there I decided to give art another shot and started painting in my spare time. This was 1965 and I really consider that year and that time to be where my art career really started. It is where I picked up my initial head of steam doing art my way, on my own terms, that I have essentially kept going ever since.
Meanwhile Simon was getting weirder by the minute. You could still find him around my mother’s apartment on some weekends, but he was mostly living a kind of vagrant existence amongst a bunch of pre-hippies in and around Washington Square in New York City. Scuzzy as it all was, it was also kind of interesting. We’d never really been what you would call great pals; far from it, really. But I started visiting him and his associates on weekends or at any other time when I had time off from the nut house. This put me on the inside track to experience what was going on musically in the clubs down there. I even finally caught up with Bo Diddley one night. He was somewhat past his prime but still putting on a pretty good show. More to the point, I started seeing some of the new acts coming up, such as The Lovin’ Spoonful, Jesse Colin Young and The Youngbloods, and the great Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Butterfield put on a great show in those days! Mike Bloomfield was in the band and in his roaring prime. They were hard to beat for a good live show, and no mistake.
Although one show I saw around then that gave them a good run for their money was a blues review at the good old Apollo Theater. It seemed like everybody was there: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Reed. It was a regular blues who’s who. But the big news was the show’s MC, B.B. King. I had aside or two by B.B. King in my 45 collection, but I was more or less indifferent to him. He was too citified or something. But live on stage was a whole other thing. Here was a guy who was distinctly better in person than he was on wax. When he got going on that guitar, “Lucille”, it was something else again: Extended blues solos of great virtuosity. In the next few years I saw him open many a show and steal those shows as often as not.
More about that later on. Somewhere in the midst of all this I upgraded to a better job. After spending a grim week on the assembly line of a picnic furniture factory in Yonkers, I managed to get the right references together to land a job at what was essentially an orphanage in Irvington, New York called Abbott House. The guy who ran the place was a little leery of me, and as well he should have been. You know, mental illness is catchy. If you’re around nuts all day long, day in, day out, you commence to be just that much screwier yourself! I began to notice that just about everybody at New York Hospital didn’t seem to be wrapped too tight. After eight months there, no question about it — I was a loose cannon too. But then I was back to doing art. You know there’s a connection there somewhere. I worked in a girl’s dorm at Abbott House with about fifteen little orphan girls ranging in age from eight to thirteen. Mostly black but a few whites and one Puerto Rican. These were street-wise kids, though, and you had to be on your toes. I was the only male in the dorm representing a kind of father figure. I really had no business working a job like that, but I was rather good at it in some ways and I tried my best to take it seriously. It was quite a scene, too! Lots of action going on. I went through two black girl friends and the second one was my first really serious affair. The girl was smart, classy — really everything you could want. But to be perfectly frank, I really lacked the maturity at that time to keep a situation like that going too far beyond the end of my job at Abbot House, although it did continue a few months beyond my move to the Lower East side, which is what happened next.
At some point, even before my switch to the job at Abbot House, something rather interesting happened between me and my brother Simon. One night, while my mother was out of the apartment, Simon brought a girl back and me and him dropped some mescaline. Man alive! It was some stuff! It had this rather electrifying effect on our relationship! We really had been bitter antagonists all of our lives. But that night we kind of reviewed the while thing, decided it was just one of those things, and buried the hatchet. And it took! After that we were best friends and remained so for quite a few years after that. The then-current Rolling Stones album, Out of Our Heads, was what we were mostly playing that night, which may have been a peak album for them. It sure stayed with me for a while and it was during this time that Simon began influencing me artistically, chiefly opening my eyes to what was going on in comics. The effect that had on my artwork was that my paintings, bit by bit, morphed into comic strips. By the time I decided to quit my job at Abbott House, take five hundred bucks I had in the bank, and go try my luck on the Lower East Side, I wasn’t sure what direction my art was going to take — painting or comics. When I look back on it all now, I’m amazed that I could have seriously thought I had any chance of succeeding at either one. But again, in the back of my head I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing. I don’t logically know why I should have felt that way, but I did. And, strangely enough, it worked!
Before moving on to my years on the Lower East Side, where I started to emerge as a comics artist, I want to talk about another killer show I saw at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. This happened when I was still at Abbott House. Lots of records got played there. The kids were huge for the Supremes. I liked them okay and probably even had one or two singles in my own pile of 45s. But to avoid Supremes overkill, some of the counselors, including me, would bring in our own LPs. I brought in an anthology LP of 30s blues stuff. There was a cut by a singer named Blind Willie McTell with a lot of saucy banter between him and some girl that everyone seemed to like. The counselor who brought in the most records, other than me, was a black girl named Julie.
She mostly brought records by Nancy Wilson and Otis Redding. I was beginning to like what was to become Redding’s signature song, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, but didn’t yet see what was really all that hot about him. Just the same, when Julie told me she’d just seen a really great review at the Apollo, I listened. Hell, going to the Apollo, no matter who was playing, was almost always a memorable experience. This show was called The Stax/Volt Review, and it starred Otis Redding.
The Stax label out of Memphis was starting to give Motown a run for its money with its own unique sound: heavy on the brass, which was unusual for r & b in those days, and memorable guitar by Steve Cropper. Another interesting thing about the Stax product at that time was that they must have been one of the last successful record labels that just got everybody into a studio together and recorded them with no overdubbing. You got a performance recorded as it happened, which, I think, added to the general level of excitement on so many of their records.
Well, I was not disappointed by The Stax/Volt Review! All of their big stars were there including Rufus Thomas (of “Walking The Dog” fame), his sultry daughter, Carla, Sam and Dave along with that big, brassy Stax band, and, of course, Otis Redding. I already had some Rufus Thomas sides, but Carla was new to me. She did some numbers with her Dad that were just great. Then she did some sexy medium tempo songs on her own and I became an instant fan. Ditto Sam and Dave. I’d heard them a little already but seeing them cemented my enthusiasm. I ran out and bought some Sam and Dave and Carla Thomas sides very soon after that. But here’s the funny part of it all. When Otis Redding came out and did his star turn at the show’s end, he left me cold! I don’t think he was giving a bad performance and I won’t say I was not entertained, He had a line of sexy go-go dancers behind him who definitely had my attention. One of them looked white and she might have been the best of the bunch. Otis Redding just wasn’t a taste I had acquired yet.
Somewhere around this time I picked up a hand-cranked table model Victrola, so I was still picking up occasional 78s. And of course I still had my Hot Five reissues and a few Ellington sides I’d pilfered from Dad’s abandoned collection. The new things I was acquiring in junk stores weren’t really any great shakes. I had “My Buddy” by Henry Burr. I wasn’t into Burr yet , but I liked the tune. But there was another old chestnut I picked up somewhere that soon became part of my working regimen once I’d relocated down to the Lower East Side. This was an old acoustical orchestra record, probably an early Nat Schildkret thing. One side had a tune called “Narcissus” and on the other was “The Spring Song”. You may not recognize these titles, but if you grew up watching old cartoons on TV like I did, you’d know them in an instant if you heard them. A snatch of one of these would usually play right after some big animal bruiser got hit on the head with a mallet or a brick. He’d do a dizzy dance to one of those tunes just before he fell over.
I found myself doing comics for an underground newspaper called The East Village Other within weeks of relocating downtown. They weren’t paying me, but the paper’s art director set me up selling weed and so I always had plenty of it around. In fact it quickly got to the point where I didn’t think I could do art unless I was stoned. This went on for quite a few years into my early comics career. Where that 78 record came in was that I got into the habit of starting each day like this: I’d roll a joint, crank up the old Victrola, put on one side of that goofy record, and light up. When the record came to an end, I’d turn it over, give the machine a few cranks, put on the flip side and finish the joint. Then I’d get some instant coffee going and start the day. I was living in a cockroach infested slum. Everybody, including me, was getting robbed all the time. It took some getting used to, which was a thing my black girlfriend, who was now working for The New York Times, wasn’t really going for. Combine that with my own self -centeredness and general lack of maturity and that relationship soon came to an end. I took it pretty hard and started showing real signs of falling apart. I guess some might have said that that had already started, but it got a lot worse. There’s no telling how far it might have gone if something rather interesting had not occurred.
It was a time of gurus and swamis. One day, when I was really starting to worry about just how low I could go, I went over to a place I had heard of in the West 80s called The Integral Yoga Institute. It was run by a man named Swami Sachidinanda. His picture, along with other famous gurus of the day, such as Meher Baba and The Beatles-own Maharishi was all over the Lower East Side. He had an impressive and timeless look. Long white beard, robe and smiling, twinkling all wise eyes looking right at you. When I first saw that photo I had no idea it was a contemporary photo at all, but figured it was probably a vintage shot taken in India back in the 1880s. I had low expectations the day I stumbled into Sachidinanda’s institute. Right away they sat me in a row with other wannabe acolytes and got us to repeat mantras line by line. I had no idea what it was I was saying but it instantly had the most amazing soothing effect on me! Suddenly I felt very calm and comfortable. After the chanting they put us through about an hour’s worth of yoga exercises, asked for a dollar donation and sent us on our way. There’s no rational way to explain it, but I walked out of there a new man! I stopped drinking no sweat! It was as easy as taking off a coat. And I started going back twice a week.
So, I started to shape up. I started feeling happy, which was good because by this time things weren’t going so well for me at The East Village Other. I’d had an initial and rather surprising success with a dope-inspired super heroish character called Sunshine Girl. Walter Bowart, the Big Honcho at EVO, as it was commonly called, promised great things for me. He even occasionally threw me a few bucks out of petty cash and finally put me up to putting together a tabloid-sized Sunshine Girl comic book. They had already done one featuring the work of Spain, another EVO staff artist, called Zodiac Mind Warp. This was pretty heady stuff! But while all this was going, I happened into a shop that sold out-of-town underground newspapers and made what I would soon realize was a rather momentous discovery. I picked up a paper that came out of Philly called Yarrowstalks because it featured art by a cartoonist I had never heard named Robert Crumb. Even at a glance I could see that this guy was truly great. I have to say, it took some wind out of my sails right then and there. And it was nothing compared to what followed. Zodiac Mind Warp was a poor seller, and it soon became pretty clear that Bowart was going to back out of his promise to publish the comic book that I was working away on. But I kept plugging away on my Sunshine Girl strips for EVO. They had initially given me half a page, but over time I started making it longer figuring I would eventually evolve myself into a full page. Soon I got up my nerve and just asked the editor if I could have a whole page. He said “sure.”
But when I started turning in strips meant to run full page, they started printing them the size of a post card! So one night I went over to EVO when they were pasting up the latest issue and figured I’d make my pitch to Bowart for at least a definite three-quarters of a page. He was flying around in full animation supervising the putting together of the issue with each page mechanical suspended on a long clothesline like string as the issue gradually took shape. He seemed to be only half listening as I made my pitch, but when I finished, he pointed to a full page comic suspended on the line. It was one of the Crumb strips I’d just seen in Yarrowstalks! In fact it had been cut right out of Yarrowstalks!
Bowart pointed to it and said, “Give me strips like this and I’ll give you a whole page!” He continued to rave on about how in Crumb he’d at last found what he’d been looking for: An acidhead cartoonist. Not good! A few days later I came into the office with a strip and editor Alan Katzman said, “Oh, by the way Kim, Bob Crumb came in and left us these.” He showed me a whole folder of stats of Crumb one pagers. On the folder’s cover, in glorious lurid color was a drawing of an insecure looking guy trying to take a leak. That may not sound like much but, trust me, it was heart-breakingly beautiful in its own strange way. I could see the handwriting on the wall, and just then it didn’t seem to be saying anything too good.
On the other hand, thanks to Swami Satchidananda a certain amount of newfound stability had come into my life. I decided to deal rationally with mt situation. I took a civil service test and got a job with the Post Office. I took the subway over to Pratt Institute and signed up for a few night school courses: silkscreening, which I thought might lead to a practical way of making some money in art; and a painting class with Jacob Lawrence. Now you might think with all this stabilizing influence from the mysterious East that this would have been the time that the Sitar music of Ravi Shankar or some such thing would take hold, but not so. What did happen is that quite unexpectedly I became a raving Otis Redding fan! He had recently been killed in a private plane accident and his last single, “Dock of the Bay” came out soon after. I bought it and started buying all of his old albums. I guess you could say he became my last really big rock and roll, r & b, soul, call it what you will, record obsession. Well, there was Janis Joplin a little later, but that was more of a live music thing. Getting back to Otis, though, it was so strange! He had just suddenly so totally kicked in for me! In fact, when I occasionally hear him now on a soundtrack or something, he’s one of the few rock-type things that–when it catches me by surprise–still really reaches me. Other good things started happening to me. I wasn’t working for EVO anymore but I still dropped by the office every week to get mail and pick up the latest issue. Walter Bowart had managed to marry an heiress and he quit. They say his going-away party was a doozy, but I was on the outside of things and only heard about it. The quality of the paper took a nosedive after Bowart left, but it was still running one of those Crumb strips every week.
And the thing is, even though I felt utterly outclassed by him I had nevertheless become one of Crumb’s biggest fans. I still am, too. So one day the inevitable happened and EVO ran out of Crumb strips. And, miracle of miracles, the new boss of EVO hired me back! Staff artist! Full pages! A real salary and other perks besides. I was in heaven, or as close to it as I ever realistically expected to be. I quit my job at the post office. But there was one little problem. The yoga institute made me so well adjusted that all the bite in my artwork seemed to have gone south! None of the stuff that I was doing in Pratt’s night school was much good. And the first new strips I did for EVO were, well, smarmy! I quit the institute and starting drinking again. That brought no real artistic improvement, but my lowdown lifestyle did make me fit in a little better among my EVO co-workers. The fact is, I think I initially had enjoyed a certain amount of beginner’s luck during my first wave of work at EVO. Now that I was earning while I was learning, I was also really realizing just how much I had to learn! Soon Spain became my roommate; he was very critical and correctly pointed out how anatomically poor my drawing was. I started putting an art morgue together, trying to swipe from the best, and started doing what I could to remedy the situation.
One thing I did immediately get from Spain was a crash course on how to pick up girls, a thing he was a master at. Spain got on board with my enthusiasm for Otis Redding, but he also had his own neighborhood favorites. He had an LP by a group called The Holy Modal Rounders he liked to play. There was a number on it called “Mr. Spaceman”, a sort of send-up of a recent top forty hit called “Mr. Baseman”. The Rounders used to be part of a group called the Fugs, who were something of a tourist attraction in those days on the Lower East Side. They used to perform at a little storefront theater and were the first group I ever heard using the work “fuck” in a show (Of course Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention were hot on their heels in that department).
I soon got to know the Rounders and The Fugs socially. The Fugs really were more of a cutting-edge comedy act with music than they were a music act per se. And for my money the best part of their act would be when their drummer, Ken Weaver, would come forward and deliver a monologue. The first one I heard, and loved, was a kind of lengthy introduction to a Fugs number called “Jack Off Blues”. Weaver really did have some kind of a gift and I was thrilled out of my skull when Spain came walking into our digs one day with Weaver in tow. And a great guy he turned out to be, too! He was a Texan, spoke fluent Russian and was as gentle and kindhearted a man as I ever met. It turned out that I had a lot of compatibility with him. He liked his reefer, but like me his cherished drug of choice was good old beer. Many was the happy hour that I spent over at Weaver’s after that, shooting the breeze as we smoked pot, occasionally dropped acid, but mainly drank beer.
Well actually, everyday life seemed to be getting progressively scarier on the Lower East Side. Coming back to my apartment one day I got mugged on the stairs at knife-point. After that I started carrying a loaded five shot 32-calibre revolver around with me. It was beginning to feel a little like the wild, wild west, but it was no fun. I was beginning to walk around with a knot in my stomach from all the tension I was feeling. I was getting laid often enough now, but I had no sooner gotten my pick-up skills in great shape than I ended up with a new steady girlfriend. Her name was Trina and she was pretty darned interesting. She was six years older than me (going on 30) and knew her way around the bohemian world a lot more than me. For one thing she told me not to worry about occasionally balling other women, just as long as I didn’t get too much in her face about it. Damn! It really was a new world! I learned a lot from her. She had a little boutique over on Fourth street and knew everyone. She started making designer clothes for me and I was definitely rising in hippy society. Then, around 1968, something really huge happened.
I was sitting in my room working on that week’s strip when Spain came in and said, “Hey Kim, guess what? Bob Crumb’s in town!” Now that was news! I’d gotten wind of the first issue of Zap Comics from somewhere. I sent a quarter along with a dime for postage to an address someone gave me and very soon I got Zap #1 in the mail! And on the envelope Crumb had even drawn a picture of Sunshine Girl reading Zap and cracking up. My God! He’d even heard of me! Well, a few hours after Spain had told me that Crumb was in town, he came walking in with the man himself. I was drawing what might have been the most Crumb influenced page I’d ever done, but if Crumb noticed he was at least polite enough not to mention it. At the time Crumb was clean shaven with longish hair. He carried a little banjo uke with him everywhere and would commence to singing and playing on it at the drop of a hat. He never seemed to finish a song but it always had a pleasant sound to it. He struck me as a pretty happy man at this time. His eyes lit up when he saw my pile of 78 records and I put one on for him. It was a Biltmore reissue of something called the House Rent Rag” by The Dixieland Jug Band. It’s been years since I’ve heard it, but it began with a fascinating monologue, a kind of a mock sermon about how bobbed hair was getting shorter and skirts were getting higher and “the way I sees it, it won’t be long before the skirts catch up with de bobbed hair!” Then after a few aye-mens he went on, “Well folks, this is 1926 and I sho’ hope I live to see 1936″ And a voice shouted out, “It won’t be long now, brother!” The main voice came back then and said, why looky here! I believe there’s a house rent party goin’ on and I wants to be the fust one to shake a leg!” Then the thing finished with about two minutes of good jazz and plenty of jug.
I was fascinated by this record with its eerie time capsule flavor and Crumb loved it, too. Anyway, Crumb stayed with us for the next week or so and I got my first look at those amazing sketchbooks of his. I’m not sure he was really collecting records yet, but shortly before he left town he gave me a pile of good 78s he’d picked up somewhere. One of them was a late ’20s novelty record by Lonnie Johnson called “The Monkey and the Baboon”. I think my father must have also had it because it sounded kind of familiar. Crumb swung back through town on his way back to California a few weeks later. He picked up the copy of “Monkey and the Baboon” that he gave me and put it on. It seemed to totally take him over and when it was done he said, “Gee, would you mind very much if I took this one back?” Well, of course I let him take it.
Now about this time Crumb had done the cover for the first Big Brother and The Holding Company album featuring Janis Joplin. I was really taken with her singing. The band was nothing much, but she had the vocal timbre of a Bessie Smith, and struck me as a singer of real promise. Crumb knew her and was polite enough when talking about her, but didn’t seem greatly impressed by her or any other aspect of contemporary rock for that matter. Not even the Beatles!
And, believe me, at that time The Beatles really did seem just shy of actual gods leading the world’s youth to a better world. I’d been following them from before Ed Sullivan and their rise to fame and better quality really was an amazing thing, even if I am sick to death of hearing about them now. I think that incredible record they made, “I am the Walrus” was probably the last 45 single I ever bought. It was a great record, but it is firmly embedded in my mind and I don’t need to ever really hear it again. I was seeing all the big “rock” acts on a fairly regular basis. That’s what they were calling it now instead of rock ‘n roll. The EVO office was now on Second Avenue just above the Village Theater, soon to become The Fillmore East. And I, like all other EVO, employees was allowed to go see anything playing there gratis. What’s more, there was a midtown nightclub, the Steve Paul Scene, that was a big EVO advertiser. I used to see Jimmy Hendrix at the bar in there all the time, although I never heard him play there. But one show that really made an impression on me was one I did have to pay for. It was the New York debut of Big Brother and the Holding Company. It took place down the street from the Fillmore at an old Yiddish theater called the Anderson. It was still putting on Yiddish shows but those were on the wane and the Anderson was beginning to book rock acts as well. The opening act that night was B.B. King, sounding outstanding as he always did. He was a tough act to follow and it was clear that Janis and Big Brother were in awe of him too, as well they should have been. Having said that, however, Janis Joplin was great that night; just about as good as I can ever remember her being. And I should know, because I followed her from show-to-show in New York. And don’t get me wrong, she was always some kind of good; and nearly always with B.B. King opening her shows. Let me tell you about the most amazing show of all that I saw with her and Big Brother. It was at a new nightclub and for some reason me and a friend were catching an afternoon show there. Well as usual B. B. King opened, but something was going on because I never heard him sound better! He did a long lyrical guitar solo that was just unbelievable. The whole set was great and Big Brother had their work cut out for them following it. They did a number and then one of the guys in the band stepped forward and said, “We want to dedicate this set to Martin Luther King. It began to dawn on us that something unusual was up. B.B. King came on for his next set and seemed a little more unglued. He hadn’t gone too far when he suddenly said, “Yes I’m drunk because the greatest man who ever lived, Martin Luther King, died today!” And that’s how we found out about the assassination of Martin Luther King. A few weeks later I was at the Steve Paul Scene with my brother Simon. We were pretty loaded and Simon pointed out to me that Janis Joplin was there. I tried to buy her a drink but she politely declined.