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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Felix Dennis, without whom — a requiem

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This just in: Felix Dennis has left the building, departed this plane of existence, passed away. Another man done gone, less than a year after Mick Farren split. (Felix and I both wrote introductions of sorts to Micky’s best-of collection Elvis Died For Somebody’s Sins But Not Mine.) You’ll be seeing summaries of his extraordinary life and career all over mainstream media any second now, but since I pretty much owe what I laughingly refer to as ‘my career’ to Felix, let’s just stick with the personal stuff …

I first met him in 1970 at Richard Neville’s basement at the preliminary editorial meeting for what eventually became the OZ Schoolkids Issue. As the magazine’s business manager and in-house ‘freak with a briefcase’, I was struck by the clash of his pinstripe suit with his Louis XIV hair and wildman beard … and his near-hysterical piratical guffaw.

He was both the most practical and the most hedonistic of the OZ triumvirate: simultaneously brusque and compassionate. When I decided to relocate to London on New Years Day of 1972, it was Felix who put me up, rent-free, in the spare room of his then dwelling at 44 Wandsworth Bridge Road, allowing me unlimited access to his fridge, his library and his record collection, and there I stayed until Felix moved out several months later. By then I was able to roll a decent spliff and I’ve still never flatshared with anyone who had so many girlfriends – or such noisy ones. All he asked in return was that I always made sure there was an untouched pint of milk in the fridge: he needed it for the ulcer he already had in his mid-20s.

Without OZ I might never have found a first home in print: without Felix’s generosity I’ve no idea how I’d have gained my first foothold in London. Many years later I worked for him again, at MacUser, and more recently he helped me out of a massive jam, even though we’d seen very little of each other for decades. ‘We’re not close friends,’ he explained, ‘but we’re old friends.’

He was booked to appear alongside R Crumb and former OZ lawyer Geoffrey Robertson at a panel about the OZ trial which I’ll be hosting on July 14 as part of The British Library’s Comics Unmasked season, but last week we heard that he was unwell and not able to appear. Guess he wasn’t kidding … Felix, if you changed your mind about doing the gig, just saying so would’ve been enough. I therefore intend to dedicate the event to him.

For now: in his honour — a poem. Hail and farewell, Felix …

We only meet at funerals
Fewer of us each time
More and more passengers disembark
As we approach the end of the line

Fewer and fewer chairs required
At each gathering of the clan
How long before we can count ourselves
On the fingers of one hand?

Some of us split long ago
Some of us hang on
Some keep an empty glass on the table
For those already gone

Some of us got famous
Some of us got rich
Some of us just got all fucked up
Ain’t that a bitch?

Some of us remember
When it wasn’t all just for show
Some of us still light a candle
For the dreams of long ago

Some left the party early
But no matter how many are dead
A spliff still burns in the ashtray
For revolutions in the head