Crumb, Shelton & Me: The Fabulous Furry Comix Brothers

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Charles Shaar Murray interviews Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton at the British Library Comics Unmasked event. Plus Oz trial panel discussion.

Into the life of an impecunious freelance kulchah pundit occasionally comes a proverbial Dream Gig. Being invited by the honchos of the British Library’s Comics Unmasked season to host and chair a panel with the two greatest figures of First Wave Underground Comix — namely R(obert) Crumb and Gilbert Shelton was one such. I mean, I’ve adored and admired the work of both these guys since my teens, and here was an opportunity not only to meet them but to chat with them before a sold-out audience and attempt to provide the specks of grit around which the creators of Mr Natural and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers could spin their respective verbal pearls.

With incomparable restraint and iron determination, I managed to restrain myself from lapsing into Fanboy Babble Mode for the first hour of the event during which i cajoled the legends into discussing their experiences in late ’60s West Coast kountah-kulchah, the effects of pyschedelics on them and their work, their earliest cartooning influences, their differing creative processes and other way-fascinating stuff. We were then joined for a second panel concerning the OZ Schoolkids Issue and the resulting legal shenanigans by Geoffrey Robertson QC, Dick Pountain (a veteran underground press hand deputising for our old friend Felix Dennis, who’d gone to somewhat drastic lengths for copping out on the panel) and my fellow ex-OZ schoolkid, architecture guru Deyan Sujic. I was only slightly distracted by a guy in the audience who could have won an Alan Moore Lookalike Contest even if Alan Moore himself had been participating.

The evening concluded with a banquetty thing at the Groucho Club (not one of my regular haunts, I must confess) where we were joined by Terry Gilliam (who’d worked alongside our two heroes in New York at Harvey Kurtzman’s HELP! magazine during the early ’60s) and where I discovered, much to my gleeful surprise, that a Seriously Famous Movie Star is a major fan of my Jimi Hendrix book, Crosstown Traffic.

So what were they like? Even cooler than I’d hoped. Shelton is a laid-back, dry-witted senior hippie and Crumb presents an elegantly dapper and sardonic figure bearing only a passing resemblance to the frazzled misanthrope of his on-the-page self. Video clippage is imminent.

Nobody seemed to have any bloody dope; everybody’s so damn respectable nowadays … but everything else one could have desired was present and more than correct. They even tell me I’m getting paid, too … miracolo!

Watch a video of the OZ Schoolkids Issue obscenity trial debate at Comics Unmasked.

Pix: Mr Crumb, Mr Me and Mr Shelton by Ander McIntyre; Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Anna Chen by Lora Fountain.

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CSM’s Choice: Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen

Charles Shaar Murray reviews
ROCK STARS STOLE MY LIFE!

Mark Ellen
Coronet, 2014

Any autobiography worth reading (ghosted or not) will reflect the character and personality of its author. It should therefore come as no particular surprise that this account of Mark Ellen’s decades of writing, editing and broadcasting stuff to do with poppy rocky stuff should be bluff, boisterous, bustling, tiggerishly-bouncily energetic, insightful and oft-times coached in urbanely Wodehousean rodomontade. The aforementioned ‘stuff’ began with a stint at the NME and proceeded via a long and winding road which included editing Smash Hits, fronting the Whistle Test and Live Aid and founding Q, Mojo and the much-missed Word. This latter was the best mag of its type you could get: it collapsed just two issues short of what would have been its tenth anniversary, and I miss it both as a reader and as a contributor.

All in all, not bad for a former lumpenhippie devotee of truly awful prog-rock who briefly shared a college rock band with a hog-whimperingly embarrassing Mick Jagger impersonator later better-known as Prime Minister of the UK turned megalomaniac war criminal. The book contains somewhat less about their subsequent encounters than this reader would have liked: Mark being both a diplomatic and a loyal soul, he continued to insist that his former bandmate, Tony Blair, was ‘a good man’ long after the evidence clearly suggested otherwise.

Mark considered himself too old for punk. In fact, he was only a year older than Mick Jones, two years younger than Joe Strummer, three years younger than yr correspondent and considerably the junior of anyone in The Ramones, let alone Patti Smith or Debbie Harry. Despite considering the NME posse a standoffish lot when he first arrived, he evidently felt that I hadn’t been too horrible to him because he subsequently offered me gainful employment on three of the above-mentioned magazines.

As well as being an entertaining, enlightening and anecdote-stuffed ride, Mark’s provided a sobering requiem for a majorly fun era in both music and its attendant media which is rapidly disappearing, its smoke and funk being relentlessly sucked away by the air-conditioning of harsher times.

The Mark Ellen you meet in these pages is, for all practical purposes, the Mark Ellen I first met as a freshfaced lad hanging around the NME office hustling for the chance to write a 300-word gig review. He’s almost as entertaining on the page as he is in RL.


4/5

CSM’s Choice: BB King’s Blues All Around Me: the Autobiography

Charles Shaar Murray reviews
BLUES ALL AROUND ME: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY

BB King with David Ritz
Hodder & Stoughton, 1994

Somehow, this extraordinary memoir slipped through my net on original publication, back when BB was a mere 70 years old. Indeed, when I found it on Charity Shop Row (or a single solitary squid!), I almost passed it by under the impression that I already had it. (Yep, I AM slow on the uptake sometimes: I won’t embarrass myself by revealing how long it took me to figure out why Bill Haley’s band were called The Comets.)

BB King was second only to Louis Armstrong for the ability to combine the roles of Beloved Entertainer and game-changing, globally influential virtuoso: of the ’60s-and-after Rock Guys, only Paul McCartney really came close. Since this book was published, much of his back-story was eloquently depicted in the recent biodoc Life Of Riley, but here on the page — coaxed from him via the alchemy of confidant/confessor David Ritz — the Big B’s narrative takes you further behind that genial, self-deprecating façade than most could possibly have predicted. Until this book was written, B very rarely spoke about the pain in his life: he channelled it via his voice and his guitar. Then he’d smile and thank the ladies and gentlemen.

So here it is: an upbringing (or shall we say ‘non-upbringing’? ‘Semi-upbringing’?) gruelling even by the standards of those born black and poor in the rural Mississippi Delta during the 1920s. The struggle to acquire and master his chosen craft and then turn it first into a means of making a living, and then into a career. No drugging and not that much drinking, but a near-lifelong battle with sex addiction and a massive gambling habit. A cosy-schmoozy showbiz autobiog this most certainly isn’t, but neither does it drip with self-pity or lapse into therapese. Even at his most scarifyingly self-revelatory, B retains both his dignity and his charm.

If, gentle reader, BB King’s work has any significance for you, then try and be smarter than yr correspondent. In another words, don’t leave it 18 years before you read it.


5/5

CSM meets R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton live at the British Library’s Comics Unmasked!

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Charles Shaar Murray presents Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Fat Freddy’s Cat, the Oz Trial, Felix Dennis, Geoffrey Robertson and Deyan Sujic in July.

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it. Since I must have done something good in a previous life (or maybe even this one), I was invited by the curators of the British Library’s Comics Unmasked! season to host a pair of back-to-back panels on the evening of July 14. The second will be cool enough — a retrochatty thing on the OZ Obscenity Trial featuring Felix Dennis (among many other CV items, one of the three editors of the Schoolkids Issue which kicked off the whole hilarious mess), Geoffrey Robertson (distinguished civil rights lawyer who worked on the defence case as a junior to the late John Mortimer) and Deyan Sujic (now a frontline architecture guru but, back in 1970, the sole skinhead member of the OZ Schoolkids posse).I may also be contributing one or two of my own recollections.

The first, however, will be a rare joint public appearance (arf, etc) by the two most distinguished cartoonists to emerge from the San Francisco underground of the late ’60s: Gilbert Shelton (creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak brothers, Fat Freddy’s Cat and Wonder Warthog) and R. Crumb (creator of Mr Natural, Fritz The Cat and — ummmm — R. Crumb). The latter will, we hope, also be sticking around for the OZ panel since it was a culture-jam mash-up of one of his strips with the Daily Express’s Rupert Bear which caused so much of the agg and trubb.

My answer? You’ve got two guesses, and one of them doesn’t count. The words ‘pleasure’ and ‘privilege’ spring irresistibly to mind.

(Almost) everything you need to know about this fabulous cultural event can be found here. It’s sold out — quite rightly, too — but it may be worth checking with the organisers to see if there are any available returns you can snaffle.

In the meantime, I’ve been catching up with the latest collections of both Crumb and Shelton’s work from Knockabout Comics – needless to say, I salute their indefatigabilty – and urge y’all to do likewise.

Hope to see you there …

Plus I’m immensely flattered that, out of all the work by megadistinguished comix creators which could have been chosen to represent the 1988 Alan Moore-edited anti-Clause 28 comic AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), the one that the curators chose to display and to excerpt in the catalogue was the one I wrote (illustrated by Floyd Hughes), entitled Friday Night At The Boozer. All I can say is: my output as a comix writer is tiny … but cute.

Hup.

PS As an added tasty treat, I’ve commenced the reconstruction oof this site’s Comics section with a piece I wrote about Crumb some years back — find it here.