Eccentricity is celebrated in San Francisco more than in most cities. LA has its crazies looking for attention, but San Francisco has genuine unconventionals.
Zap Comics was a major underground publication in the sixties, and R. Crumb was its iconic artist, coming up with such characters as Mr. Natural, the Keep on Truckin’ guy and others.
To call R. Crumb a media recluse would be a major understatement. The only reason anyone knew what he looked like was from his self-portraits in Zap Comics. When he lived in San Francisco, he was rarely seen in public, and never did interviews with mainstream media. He just did his work, and kept a low profile. It’s not like he never talked to anyone, he was just very picky about who he did talk to.
When a press release about a benefit party for a local non-profit artists group at a pizza parlor, with R. Crumb as a special guest came to the San Francisco Examiner, reporter Jennifer Foote and I jumped at the opportunity to get to talk to him.
The pizza parlor where this was to take place was not the quirky local neighborhood kind where you would expect to see a great counter-culture icon; it was part of a chain, the kind of chain with an old timey piano and picnic tables with benches.
Arriving a little late, we took a quick look around, and there sitting alone at a table was the master himself, R. Crumb, nursing a beer. As we walked over to him, an enthusiastic man dressed all in white, and looking like he was going to play tennis at the Jay Gatsby’s house, intercepted us. He said he was Mr. Crumb’s ‘spokesperson’. He told us that Mr. Crumb does not speak to the media, except through someone else. I asked if photographing him had the same kind of restrictions. For instance; did I have to shoot someone else, and say it was R. Crumb? No, he said that I could shoot all I wanted, but couldn’t talk to him.
Jennifer and I sat down across the table from Crumb. His spokesperson sat next to him. When Jennifer leaned over to try and say something to Crumb, he ignored her and the spokesperson leaned in, listened to what she had to say, and repeated it to Crumb. Crumb then answered the spokesperson, and the spokesperson told Jennifer what Crumb had said, even though we could both hear him just fine.
Jennifer and I turned and looked at each other. I felt like I was in a Woody Allen movie. This guy was really going to ignore anything said directly to him by anyone but his spokesperson. It was like someone translating English to English.
The noise from the party was getting louder, and hearing what the spokesperson-interpreter was saying was getting more difficult, so Jennifer moved to the other side of the table next to R. Crumb. Crumb was now between the reporter and the interpreter. When she asked a question, she had to lean forward and talk across the interviewee, and get her answers back the same way.
This was getting weirder and weirder, but R. Crumb was taking this like it was an everyday event.
Jennifer was becoming irritated, yet amused and started asking questions like, “What’s it like sitting next to someone who is talking about you, but you don’t say anything?” or, “How’s that beer tasting?” hoping to get a direct answer from him, but no, every word had to go through the interpreter. The interview, such as it was, went on to it’s conclusion. Jennifer said her thanks to the interpreter and then to R. Crumb, getting a “you’re welcome” from the former, and not getting an answer from the latter.
I stood up, and reached out my hand to Crumb and said thanks. To Jennifer’s astonishment, he shook my hand and said “No problem”.