GROTH: My understanding is there was a time when you led a pretty unsavory existence, I don’t know if we could chart that from when you became a garbage man — are you willing to talk about this?
GROTH: Weren’t you a garbage man at the age of 16 or 17?
WOODRING: No, it was the age of 19, right after high school. I had applied for the job while I was still in high school and working at the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round. About six months after I graduated, I got a letter from the city saying this garbage man job was waiting for me. So I went down and got the job, and it’s romantic to say that being around a bunch of booze-swilling trash-haulers turned me into a swashbuckling drunk, but that isn’t the case. The first time I ever drank anything at all, which was a glass of beer, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, which was to consume alcohol. So I just got drunk every chance I got, and there were complications because I could drink a prodigious amount of liquor and stay up ’til three in the morning, sleep, get up at five — still drunk, but feeling fresh as a daisy — and go out and haul rotting trash around in the boiling sun and come home just feeling fine and repeat the process over again. I never got hangovers. I’ve had about three hangovers in my whole life — a life that contained about eight solid years of boozin’.
GROTH: What would cause a hangover?
WOODRING: I don’t know. But every so often there would be days where I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt like I’d been poured into a bed with a ladle and that I had pain twisters going out of me all over the place and I would just stay in bed all day.
GROTH: Did you drink for the first time after you became a garbage man?
WOODRING: No, before that. Right after high school. Actually, the first intoxicant I ever took was LSD, and that was when I was a really repressed kid — I was wearing Penneys short-sleeved madras shirts with a T-shirt underneath and black horn-rimmed glasses. I was a perfect innocent and somebody gave me a hit of really dirty, really strong LSD, and I had a horrible life-transforming experience which basically showed me that reality wasn’t all that real. I mean, I knew how much LSD there was in that pill and there wasn’t very much, it was mostly chalk and rat poison and gunpowder and whatever else they put in that stuff in those days and I realized that I had eaten a dust speck which had just wiped away the world like wiping away watercolor with a wet sponge.
GROTH: Why would it do that?
WOODRING: Well, I guess it’s probably something that people who have taken LSD have in common: the sense that the world is largely illusionary. It’s a sensation you get from it. You really feel like you’re looking through things that are made of gauze and wind and electricity and not much else. Things don’t seem very solid.
GROTH: You caught the tail end of the ’60s, you were a teenager in the ’60s. Did that whole countercultural period affect you?
WOODRING: Oh yeah, that’s when and how I got interested in comics, for one thing. I never read comic books until the undergrounds started corning out.
GROTH: And that would have been 1967, ’68?
GROTH: But you were still a geek wearing penny loafers. You weren’t a hippie.
WOODRING: No, that’s true, I wasn’t.
GROTH: I would think that you would have naturally gravitated toward that alienated countercultural perspective that would embrace people like you.
WOODRING: Well, I just didn’t have the savoir-faire to become a hippie; I was still basically a basket case. I liked all that stuff because it was pointing to something outside of the accepted social contract and it really did seem to be saying, “Tear down the existing order and start over again.” And that appealed to me tremendously, fool that I was. But I didn’t have any power, I didn’t have any strength, I didn’t have any way of acting out my impulses. I just read the comic books and thought, “These people are aware that there’s a bigger and more sane world outside the one I’m experiencing here in Glendale.” It was LSD, of course.
GROTH: What kind of a student were you in high school?
WOODRING: Lousy. I barely graduated.
GROTH: Just academically lousy.
GROTH: Is that because you have no interest in it?
WOODRING: Yeah, I did? well in things that interested me. I did well in English and I did well in art class. But everything else, lousy,
GROTH: When did you first decide or have inclinations to become a cartoonist or an artist?
WOODRING: I always figured that that’s what I would do because I had always drawn all my life.
GROTH: How early an age?
WOODRING: I starting drawing when I was 4 or 5 like most children. The desire to draw something that wasn’t there was always of paramount importance to me. That was my goal as an artist. That’s why my technique is so scattered, because I always concentrated on the content and I was trying to nail down something that I couldn’t see. I didn’t even hear about Surrealism until I was in high school, and then in 1968 there was a huge retrospective of Surrealism at the Los Angeles County Art Museum and I went with a group of students. It was an experience that took me about three days to get over. It really, really floored me, I had no idea that that sort of thing had ever existed or ever been done. And it was so manifestly what I had been trying to do. It gave me an incredible amount of hope because I didn’t feel like a complete anomaly. And then on the other hand it filled me with despair because this movement had many, many people in it who were doing this incredibly powerful work, these physical portraits of invisible things, work I couldn’t match. And the movement had been dead for a bunch of years, this was all in the past, so I felt like I really arrived too late.
GROTH: Now, I would have thought you would have gone from high school to college, but you went from high school to being a garbage man.
WOODRING: Well, right out of high school I went to Glendale Junior College for about two months and took an art history class which I wasn’t really interested in and gave that up after a while. In fact, I had the most significant hallucination of my life in this art history class. I took it as an omen that I should just get the hell out of school and stay out! [Laughs.] This hallucination was so much more interesting than the class — it seemed to have forced its way into the classroom and jumped out of the screen where these slides were being projected in order to tell me that I should be somewhere else. I felt that this image had gone to a lot of work to get into the building and get into that room and wait for the screen to turn blank and then appear at me to honk at me to go. So I did.
GROTH: Did you have a religious upbringing?
WOODRING: No, not at all.
GROTH: So your parents were —
WOODRING: My parents were Glendale Presbyterians, which means they were alcoholics.
GROTH: And you became an alcoholic.
WOODRING: I like to think I was born an alcoholic and became a practicing alcoholic.
GROTH: Right. And how long did that last?
WOODRING: About eight years.
GROTH: How destructive was that to your life?
WOODRING: Well, it hampered a lot of my own progress, but I think it’s more destructive to the lives of others because I had a lot of energy and mobility while I was drunk. I could have killed people driving around drunk a million times over — that’s one thing I’m really ashamed of and I’m really grateful nothing bad happened as a result of … I caused a lot of ugly scenes and hurt a lot of people’s feelings and alienated a lot of friends and just did a lot of stupid, unseemly things. Sometimes I was a charming drunk and other times I was just an obnoxious drunk. And at those times I, with all the energy and ingenuity of an intoxicated misfit who suddenly feels like Jesus Christ, would do stupid, bad things.
GROTH: And this would have been in your 20s.
GROTH: Were you constantly drawing during this period?
WOODRING: As much as I could.