Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Plymouth Rocks!




Ah, yes, another Thanksgiving is almost upon us. I suppose we all know the origins of the holiday by now. I mean, we Americans know the origins. However, as this is the Internet, I know citizens of other countries occasionally takes a gander at this blog, and they may need an explanation. To recap, in 1620 a group of Puritans at odds with the Church of England in their home country set sail on a ship called The Mayflower to North America, or as it was sometimes referred to at the time, the New World. After an arduous two-month journey, they landed in what is now Massachusetts and established a modest little colony named Plymouth, after the town back home from which the Mayflower had set sail. Dry land notwithstanding, things got even more arduous for the people who would come to be known as Pilgrims.  Disease, food shortages, and a harsh winter took its toll. Of the 102 Puritans who had set sail on the Mayflower, only about half were still alive a year later. Gradually, things did improve for the survivors. They met a group of indigenous North Americans, or Indians, who lived nearby and agreed to help them out by showing them how best to farm the soil. After a successful fall harvest, the Plymouth colonists decided to hold a celebratory feast, inviting the Indians to join them. The more, the merrier, as they say.

Then there was the day after the First Thanksgiving. That's when a phalanx of musket-toting paleface Pilgrims marched into the Indian village, knocked loudly on the first wigwam they came to, and barked, "OK, Tonto, it's Manifest Destiny time! We got a nice reservation all decked out for you. If you don't like the accommodations, take your complaints to the 7th Cavalry!"

Well, I might be telescoping events a wee bit.

Here's some Thanksgiving imagery, along with some history here and there, to mull over as you chow down on your stuffing and mashed potatoes.


 Let's start with Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want. Though the painting (or illustration) debuted in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post in March of 1942, it's come to be associated with Thanksgiving. This is Rockwell at his most photographic. At his most detailed. For instance, in the middle-right of the picture, note how what looks to be a gelatin of some sort in magnified through a glass of water. Rockwell may have made things even more challenging for himself by having white dinnerware placed on a white tablecloth, along with white curtains in the background. So much white that in the hands of a lesser artist the picture could have become so much spilled milk. However, Rockwell was not a lesser but a greater artist (or illustrator), and so each and every object is clearly delineated. And there are some non-white objects to offer a bit of contrast, too, such as that fellow looking at us in the lower-right hand corner (hey, pal, didn't anybody ever tell you it's not nice to stare?) OK, so the artwork is technically kick-ass, but how about the message it conveys? Is perhaps Rockwell idealizing the holiday a bit too much? Well, that's something for each and every one of you to decide on your own, depending on your own experiences on Turkey Day. I mean, I've been to Thanksgiving dinners where something like the above scene more or less played out. And remember, it's a single moment in time, not the entire day. Anything that might have occurred afterwards, from a family argument, to some drunken behavior,  to people showing impatience as they wait to get into the bathroom, to a whipped cream-covered pumpkin pie becoming embedded in the carpet, to the dog snapping at a kid who yanked too hard on the his left ear, well, you can paint those pictures yourself if you want. I only have one quibble with what's arguably Rockwell's most famous work of art. I don't know what the availability of steroids were in the 1940s, but, given the size of that turkey, you'd think that woman would be straining a bit more than she is with that platter. Furthermore, she's holding it at kind of an awkward angle. Wouldn't it be much easier if she held it right in front of her as she placed it on the table? But I guess she can't because that idiot to the left of her won't get out of the way.



There's no evidence Pilgrims actually dressed this way, but someone dreamed up the look in the late 19th-early 20th century, and it's been with us ever since.


There's even less evidence that pilgrims dressed like this (TCM fans, that's Jean Arthur on the left.)



Man, look at the size of that ship! It sure takes up a good swath of the ocean. Those pilgrims should have made it to the New World in no time at all!



Ready-to-serve Thanksgiving.


As Thanksgiving made its way into the 20th century, the iconic Pilgrim began to realize he had to compete for the public's attention  (art by the once-popular illustrator J.C. Leyendecker. Don't know if he played the game or not.)


That should feed a lot of munchkins.


The Pilgrims furniture arrives.


Nothing goes with turkey like oatmeal (or whatever the heck it is.)



I hope for that woman on the left's sake that this is Plymouth and not Salem.


This Puritan descendant turned out not to be very puritanical at all.


Fowl play: a Partridge on a turkey shoot.


Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims in their diaries, journals, and correspondence say nothing about coming across a big rock upon arriving in the New World. That's not to say it wasn't there, but just that the Pilgrims didn't think anything of it. It wasn't until 121 years later that a Plymouth civic leader decided that the rock was of great historical significance (i.e., a tourist attraction.)


More fowl play. Is Woodstock a cannibal?


Take a moment to give thanks the next time you walk into a movie theater.


 "Still crazy after all these years..."

(As much as I would like it to be, that's not my joke. Paul Simon actually sang that while hosting Saturday Night Live back in November, 1976.)


 Leftovers.


 I can't look either.


Another Thanksgiving tradition.


You always know the parade is winding down when this fellow shows up. Which brings up another point. Whatever the holiday's historical origins, these days Thanksgiving is basically the Christmas season's opening act.

Historical fact: in the final years of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the second-to-last, thinking an early start to the Christmas shopping season might improve retail sales. A hue and cry went up from holiday traditionalists, college athletic directors who now had to rearrange the football schedule, and Republicans hoping to exploit the votes of the first two groups. After about three years, and by joint resolution of Congress which the now-chastened President signed into law, Thanksgiving was returned to the last Thursday of November. Thus the sanctity of the holiday was preserved. For a while, anyway. In the past ten years, I've worked at both Macy's and Target, and in each store Christmas decorations started going up the day after Halloween. FDR was just a bit before his time, that's all.

Well, that's all I got, and so, in parting, I'd just like to say...


 ...Happy Thanksgiving, and hats off to all of you!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Vital Viewing (Shag Edition)


Whoopi Goldberg was born on this day in 1955. Apparently earlier this year she performed a one-woman show and/or stand-up routine at the Palladium in London. She discusses it here with BBC talk show host Graham Norton (that's Keanu Reeves to her right):


I don't know if this one-woman show is going to be playing here in the States anytime soon, but if it does and it's anything like the above clip, it looks to be highly entertaining (though it might be a good idea to leave the kids at home.)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

In Memoriam: Fats Domino 1928-2017

 

"Well, I wouldn't say that I started it (rock 'n' roll), but I don't remember anyone else before me playing that kind of stuff."




Domino was born and raised in--where else?--New Orleans.



Domino started playing pianos in bars when he was about 14 (apparently he wasn't carded.) He was a little older than that when he was hired to play piano for the Solid Senders. It was the leader of that band, Billy Diamond who gave the young Antoine (he was of French-Creole descent) his nickname "Fats" after piano players Fats Waller and Fats Pichon. And, yeah, Domino had a hearty appetite, so that had something to do with it, too.







Domino came to the attention of trumpeter-turned-record producer Dave Bartholomew, who signed him to the Imperial label. Together the two men wrote, and Domino sang and played the piano on, a 1949 recording called...


..."The Fat Man". Domino also supplied the "wah wahs".  

Domino, with Bartholomew's help, had a string of hits throughout the 1950s.







"Ain't That a Shame". Domino's first Top 10 hit,in 1955. Note the actual record had the WRONG title!



"Blueberry Hill", written in 1940, had previously been recorded by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Gene Autry (!), Jimmy Dorsey, and Louis Armstrong, but it became (most likely) forever identified with Domino, starting in 1956, when it went all the way to #2. It was his biggest hit.



"I'm Walkin'", 1957.






You may be curious about the quote at the top of this post. What does Domino mean he doesn't remember anyone recording that kind of stuff before him? What is he, a raving egomaniac? I doubt it. When he says people didn't play it before him, I think he was talking about folks, particularly white folks, like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who hit the charts about the same time he did. The fact people WERE recording that kind of stuff before him. 10, 20, even 30 years before Domino. That's absurd, you say? Rock 'n' roll didn't come along until the 1950s. Well, yeah, if you're talking about rock 'n' roll LABLED rock 'n' roll. But listen to pre-World War II jazz sometimes, before Charlie Parker got his hands on it. Artists such as Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway recorded music that doesn't sound all that different from 1950s rock 'n' roll. Or listen to jazz's kid brother swing. White artists such as Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman (the Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis of their era)--well, if you had played one of their numbers at a 1959 sock hop, I'm not sure any of the teens dancing in the high school gym would have noticed the difference. Most of all, listen to a sub-genre of swing called boogie-woogie (as well as the closely related jump blues, and the more countrified honky-tonk) Many of the artists and songs are obscure now, but I'm sure you've been exposed to at least two boogie-woogie songs in a rather unusual place: animated cartoons. Ever see the one Tom and Jerry short where the feline dresses up in a zoot suit and sings "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?"  Tell me that song (originally recorded by Louis Jordan) doesn't sound a lot like 1950s rock. Or maybe Walt Disney is more to your liking. Watch Dumbo sometimes. The racial stereotyping is unfortunate, I'll admit, but when Jim Crow and his pals (actually white jazzman Cliff Edwards a.k.a. Ukulele Ike) performs "When I See an Elephant Fly" , it rocks!

So why does most everyone think that rock 'n' roll started in the 1950s? Well, after World War II, swing, boogie woogie, whatever you call it, fell out of favor. Jazz, in the form of bebop, became intellectualized (whether performers such as Parker saw themselves as intellectuals or not.) As a now Depression-free and war-free America became a much more mellow place, so did its listening habits. Artists such as Doris Day, Patti Page, Perry Como, and Johnny Mathis ruled the airways. I personally don't have a problem with their kind of music (which is now almost extinct) but had I been a teenager in the 1950s, I probably would have found it boring, as did many teens at the time. So when the new/old music now called rock 'n' roll came along, kids found it new and exciting, and THAT'S what I think Domino meant. 

Of course, in the coming decades, music would become even more novel and exciting, even revolutionary, probably too revolutionary for the likes of Fats Domino, who fell out of favor. He nonetheless earned a living on the nostalgia circuit, and, as I understand it, continued to keep fans satisfied.

 






Saturday, October 21, 2017

Vital Viewing (Oceania Edition)



In the comment section of a recent post on the late Tom Petty, someone complained that I was ignoring the Southern Hemisphere and the influence thereof. I at first thought this a bit unfair as I had explicitly pointed out that Petty had grown up in Florida. Then I realized the commentator meant the Earth's southern hemisphere. Well, I guess I'm guilty as charged, but first let me give you some mitigating details. I was born in the Northern Hemisphere, grew up in the Northern Hemisphere, and still live in the Northern Hemisphere. What do I know about what's below the equator, other than that it's hot? Trying to figure out exactly what was the beef of the person who left the comment, I saw that he hailed from Australia. It's funny. I've never been there, but it's my impression that Australia is so thoroughly Westernized, it's more like a suburb of the North, which its citizens may or may not take as a compliment. I do know the continent/island/country has made frequent and arguably significant contributions to popular culture. So in the interest of Multiculturalism, Diversity, Equality, World Peace, and anything else that might make a Trump supporter retch, I offer the following sampling:













I realize there are many other, more recent, examples, but these are what immediately came to mind.


Now, if you'll excuse me, mate, I'm going to go out and grab myself a bite to eat.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

In Memoriam: Tom Petty 1950-2017



“Music is probably the one real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.”





Petty grew up in Gainesville, in Northern Florida






"That's what kicked off my love of music. And I'd never thought much about rock 'n' roll until that moment." What  kicked off Petty's love of music? And who the hell is the hotshot with the shades? Read on.




Petty had an uncle who owned a film developing business. When the above motion picture was being shot in the nearby town of Ocala, that uncle got a job on the set, and invited his 11-year old nephew to meet the film's star (incidentally, I've seen this movie, and while it's no classic, it's a cut above the average Presley flick.)




Petty seems to have had several bands in the early '70s, the most notable of which was Mudcrutch. That's lead guitarist Mike Campbell to Petty's left...




...an association that would outlive the band after its one and only single failed to chart.




Undaunted, Petty and Campbell, along with bassist Ron Blair, drummer Stan Lynch and keyboardist Benmont Tench formed a new band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty sung lead, and also played the guitar.





The band's first single "Breakdown" was a Top 40 hit in 1976.


In 1979, the band released their third album Damn the Torpedoes, which quickly went platinum, and made it all the way to #2  on Billboard's album chart (Pink Floyd's monster hit album, The Wall, was  #1) It's kind of forgotten now, but at the time the Heartbreakers were thought to be a "new wave" band with a southern-tinged punk sound. Later on in the 1980s, the band was lumped with such "heartland rock" acts as Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Bob Segar, though Petty felt he was a bit different from them, believing his band to be a bit more idiosyncratic, and so he was. The sound, probably due to Petty's wonderfully nasal singing style, was unique and always instantly identifiable.


"Refugee" 



"Here Comes My Girl"



"Don't Do Me Like That"



"The Waiting" from the 1981 album Hard Promises.





In 1986 Petty and another wonderfully nasal-voiced singer went on tour together. The Heartbreakers played backup for Dylan, probably his best backup band since...



...these guys.





In addition to touring together, Dylan and Petty were members, along with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne of the short-lived but fondly-remembered supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.





With all this going on, Petty also found time for a solo album (produced by Campbell), which yielded several more classics.



"I Won't Back Down"



"Free Fallin"



Petty also did a bit of acting. He voiced Luann's no-good boyfriend (and later no-good husband) Elroy "Lucky" Kleinschmidt on King of the Hill (note what the show's patriarch Hank is holding in his hands--it was literally a shotgun wedding!)



From rags to riches.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Petty made his fortune through his music.






  

Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There's not some trick involved with it. It's pure and it's real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/tom_petty
Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There's not some trick involved with it. It's pure and it's real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/tom_petty

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Archival Revival (Brown Paper Bag Edition)


As I'm sure you've heard by now, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died. Back in 2013, I wrote a long essay about satirist Harvey Kurtzman (best known for creating Mad, first as a comic book, and then as a magazine), in whose life Hefner played no small part. It's pretty lengthy, but only part of a larger piece that is almost TWICE as long. So, if you do decide to read it, rest assured you're getting off easy.

These failures didn't happened in a vacuum. I haven't gone much into Harvey Kurtzman's personal life so far, but he had one. Arguably a bigger one than most American males of his era as he often worked from home. He had a wife Adele, whom he married in 1948; a daughter Meredith, born 1949; son Peter, born 1954; and another daughter Elizabeth, 1957. Peter was autistic. In the 1950s and '60s, autism was much less understood than it is today. It was also, for reasons that are not at all understood now, much less common than today. All that rarity and misunderstanding must have cost money. Things were not looking good for Harvey Kurtzman in 1962.


Hugh Hefner to the rescue! He wasn't going to give Kurtzman his own magazine to play with this time around. Instead, he would get a comic strip that would appear within the pages of Playboy itself. After years of failure, Harvey Kurtzman would once again taste success. I mean, the strip ran for 26 years. It had to have been a success, right? Originally, this new strip was meant to be just a sideline as Kurtzman continued with Help! But before long it was Help! itself that was relegated to the sidelines, until it disappeared entirely in September of 1965. The comic strip would become Kurtzman's mainline, his calling, his vocation, his occupation, his livelihood, his situation, his nine-to-five (with plenty of overtime), his bread-and-butter, his grind.




That Harvey Kurtzman on the left in the above photo. Will Elder, the class clown as always, is the man in the center. Jack Davis is on the right. Though she once famously donned bunny ears and cotton tail as part of an undercover assignment for Esquire, the woman in the middle is NOT Gloria Steinem (though it would have been one helluva picture if it was), just some anonymous Playboy Club employee pressed into service. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but, remember, it's a publicity shot. This may simply be their way of saying, "Cheese!"


Little Annie Fanny was ostensibly a parody of Harold Gray's once-popular comic strip Little Orphan Annie, but the similarity ends with the title logo. It wasn't even drawn in Gray's style. In fact, it wasn't drawn at all but gorgeously painted by the ever-versatile Will Elder. Originally, Kurtzman wanted to transfer Goodman Beaver over to Playboy, but Hefner nixed the idea. So Goodman instead got a kind of sex change operation. Fanny told the story of a leggy, buxom, blond naif who was continuously preyed upon by the mavens of Politics, Industry, and Culture, thus she represented the Modern Everyperson trying desperately to resist molestation by impersonal forces beyond her control or understanding.

Well...no. Little Annie Fanny was never as pointed as all that, but it could have been. I haven't read every Annie strip that's appeared in Playboy, but the ones I have seen weren't nearly as funny as Kurtzman's best stuff from Mad, Trump, Humbug, or Help! Others have said the same thing. In preparation for an interview with Will Elder in 2003, The Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth did read every single strip, and found the satire "intermittent at best." For all his reputation as envelope-pusher, sexual humor doesn't seem to have been Harvey Kurtzman's forte. At least not during his 26 years at Playboy.



Lets back up a bit. Sexy, buxom dames, whether drawn by him or one of his artists, had been tropes in all of Kurtzman's comics in the 1950s and early '60s. No surprise as he was simply parodying and satirizing the times he lived in, the Marilyn Monroe/Jayne Mansfield/Brigitte Bardot era. But the difference between parody and satire depends on how well one sees through a culture, an era. Though the term "sexual harassment" wouldn't be coined until sometimes in the 1970s, Harvey Kurtzman seems to have pointed out its existence in the 1950s. Or was he simply trying to be funny? In a Mad parody of Archie called "Starchie" (not to be confused with Beaver Goodman story in Help!) the principal chases two high school girls around his desk. As Will Elder observed nearly 50 years later, "Well, it happens. Some teachers prey on their students." In "Superduperman" the Clark Kent character uses his X-ray vision to look through the door of the women's bathroom. Gloria Steinem wouldn't disagree that a man with such an ability might do just that. If Kurtzman meant these joke as criticisms, he would have been way ahead of his time. But since they are jokes, he very well could have been doing no more than playing for laughs. Ba-dum-ching!



Annie Fanny, however, never seemed to realize she was being sexually harassed until her last shred of clothing had come off. That she was never out-and-out raped was due less to any vigilance on her part and more to the fact that her would-be molesters were even dumber than her. The blind seducing the blind. A typical strip would end with Annie walking, or running, away, stark naked as her pursuer lay writhing on the ground in a state of coitus interruptus. That could be funny at times. Except as this was "entertainment for men" the average male reader might actually identify and feel sorry for the luckless leches, rather than feel any relief that Annie had escaped unscathed. The predators were the Everymen, and she was the impersonal force beyond their control or understanding (they just couldn't understand why she didn't want to get laid.) I doubt Kurtzman really meant for it it to be perceived that way, and he did make sporadic attempts to satirize the Playboy ethos. But it's hard to bite the hand that feeds you if the other one has you by the balls.

Little Annie Fanny originally appeared once a month and ran seven or eight pages. Within a year it was down to an average of about four pages every other month. By the 1970s, it was down four or five stories a year, then once or twice a year in the 1980s. This was wasn't due to any slide in popularity. As far as Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder were concerned, it might as well have been 100 pages seven days a week. The delays had to with the fact that despite his carefully self-cultivated image as a laid-back hedonist who never got out of his pajamas, Hugh Hefner was actually a nitpicking control freak.


In that 2003 interview, Will Elder tells of Kurtzman informing him after he had turned in his art that Hefner wants this or Hefner says get rid of that. "Jeez," Elder thought. "He actually looks at and reads every detail." Many of those details would have been the background gags Elder was known for but that Hefner considered high school stuff. Painting the strip was time-consuming enough, without having to do it all over again. Elder soon needed help with the art. Kurtzman called in comic book artist Russ Heath to help. Even that wasn't enough, as Hefner kept asking for redoes, proving his dissatisfaction extended to gags in the foreground as well. Other artists helping out were Frank Frazetta, Al Jaffee and Jack Davis (whose style wasn't really all that compatible with Elder's; still his trademark flailing limbs seemed appropriate on the sex fiends who regularly pursued Annie) Throughout the 1960s, until Elder finally came up with a faster technique, it was not uncommon to see the art attributed to three different people. All these artists lived in New York City's tri-state area, but getting the strip out in time meant extended stays at the Playboy Mansion, then located in Chicago. There they would work on Little Annie Fanny, take what they prayed would be the final version to Hefner's bedroom (truth is stranger than parody) making sure they removed their shoes before walking on his white carpet (...as well as satire.) Hef would either approve, or, more likely, disapprove, and they'd be back at the drawing, or rather, painting, board again.



To be fair to Hefner, these were all commercial artists. They were used to taking orders. It wasn't art for art's sake with them. At least not all the time. Harvey Kurtzman himself could be an exacting task master. Beginning with the war comics, Kurtzman would prepare a penciled layout on what's called a Bristol board, then trace over that with some kind of tissue overlay, and transfer that to another board, maybe even a board after that if he was dissatisfied, until it ended up on a final illustration board. Keep in mind he was doing all this for other artists, who might have felt their creativity infringed upon a bit. Elder had no problem with this technique, as Kurtzman allowed him (until Hefner intervened) free reign with the background gags. Other artists grumbled but inevitably went with the flow. Except for John Severin. A friend of Kurtzman's since high school, he broke with him back in the 1950s over the layouts.  That's one artist who never got to see the inside of the Playboy Mansion.


If Hefner's complaints about the art extended beyond Elder's gags, then they were really directed toward Kurtzman, seeing as he did the layouts. And it wasn't just the art. He increasingly didn't like Kurtzman's scripts either, giving 20 page critiques--nearly five times as long as the average Little Annie Fannie story. More changes, more time wasted. So Kurtzman, who had written the first 23 issues of Mad by himself, now needed someone to help him write the bi-monthly four-page Annie stories. He got that help from Larry Siegel, who had written for Humbug before moving on to Mad. Siegel could be a truly hilarious writer, and he's had an interesting career, one that's included three writing Emmys for The Carol Burnett Show. Unfortunately, the Annie stories I've seen with his name on it aren't any funnier than those with Kurtzman's alone. He seems to have had the same basic problem: how to top Annie's own toplessness.


Chalk it all up to the curiously narrow vision of a man who has spent sixty years insisting he's anything but. For all his reputation as an envelope-pusher, sexual humor doesn't seem to have been Hugh Hefner's forte. Look at the other cartoons (many beautifully done in color) that appear in Playboy. What do you usually see? A naked woman in the foreground, and a man, more often than not fully clothed, in the back. A forgettable caption underneath. A naked woman can be many, many things, but hysterically funny isn't usually one of them. Quite a few of the cartoonists who have appeared in Playboy over the years have also had their work published in The New Yorker, and they're almost always funnier in the latter. Such is freedom from formula. If you overlook the potential for abuse, Little Annie Fanny at least got some comic mileage out of the  horny males (and in one 1978 strip, females) clownish pursuit of the title character. But that made for a one-joke strip, even as the topic, usually a very topical topic, changed from appearance to appearance. Then again, who picks up Playboy for the laughs? You read it for the articles.


According to Elder: "Hefner didn't want anything to resemble Mad magazine. If you understand that, you understand the whole process of Annie Fanny." OK, fine, but then why the hell hire two guys from Mad? I think Kurtzman and Elder weren't trying to relive past glories so much as simply being themselves. Now they were expected to be like Hugh Hefner, the failed cartoonist.

Most of what I've told you so far about Harvey Kurtzman's long tenure at Playboy was taken from that Will Elder interview. If that's all I had to go by, I'd just chalk it up as sour grapes from someone who didn't like always having to repaint his work, especially if that meant erasing all his little background jokes that never advanced the narrative anyway. However, there was another witness, and here's where our story takes a particularly sad turn.


As the 1960s drew to a close, a new trend had emerged within--no, no, that's not right. This new trend emerged way, way, way, way outside of the publishing industry, as well as neighborhood drugstore magazine racks. I'm talking "underground comix", written and drawn by people so obviously radical they refused to use proper spelling. Among them were Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Jay Lynch, Bill Griffith, Rick Griffin, Vaughn Bode, Denis Kitchen, Victor Moscoso, Skip Williamson, Rory Hayes, Trina Robbins, Art Speigelman, Aline Komiskey, Rand Holmes, Jay Lynch, and Gilbert Shelton. Most of these new cartoonists were inspired by Kurtzman's Mad when young, and some were even published in Help! Their choice of subject matter, however, went far beyond the most tasteless Mad parodies or dirtiest Annie Fannys, as their comix were full of explicit sex, explicit violence, explicit drug use, and even explicit politics. Sold mostly in head shops (neighborhood drugstores of a kind, except the clientele was typically under 30) they did not carry the Comic Code Authority seal, and no one cared. Well, a few judges did, as the stores that carried them were now and then busted for obscenity. Many of these comics came off the mimeograph machine, and were on such low-quality materials they made the faux-cheap paper Bill Gaines favored for Mad look like it was spun from fine silk. Kurtzman, as I said earlier, never wanted Mad or any magazine he worked on to look cheap. By 1969, though, he may have been having second thoughts. He reportedly flirted with becoming an underground cartoonist himself. Now, this movement was part of the larger counterculture, which Kurtzman had made fun of quite a bit in Little Annie Fanny, treating it not so much as a threat to the Republic, as others at the time did, but merely as a passing fad (which in many ways it was.) Hippiedom nevertheless intrigued him. On a trip to California, the epicenter for all things groovy, he actually visited a commune. He also went to a party thrown by some underground cartoonist friends. However, the loud music and hard drugs proved a little too much for the middle-aged Kurtzman, and he made a hasty retreat back to the mainstream that had so fueled his satire. Also, it paid better.

Still, if he couldn't be an underground cartoonist himself, maybe Kurtzman could at least introduce some who were to the mainstream media (which by now included Playboy.) He set his sights on the most well-known of these cartoonists, his friend and disciple Robert Crumb.


When we last saw Robert Crumb, his first Fritz the Cat comics were just getting published in Help! Though Fritz would arguably become his first great success, it wasn't until the hipster feline appeared in Cavalier, a Playboy knockoff, that he found a larger audience. Harvey Kurtzman did at least anticipate that larger audience for Crumb someday, and hoped for a slice of it himself, if he could just keep Help! afloat. As part of an agreement to write and draw about it when he came back, Kurtzman sent Crumb and his newlywed wife Dana on an all-expense paid honeymoon to Bulgaria. Not exactly Niagara Falls, but Crumb reportedly enjoyed himself.  He returned to the U.S. with some moody, evocative pictures of the then-Soviet satellite. Crumb was all set to replace the departing Terry Gilliam as art director when Help! folded. And so he went back to Cleveland and American Greetings. Bored with a job at which he excelled, he turned to not alcohol but a form of escapism that was then gaining in popularity: LSD. Still perfectly legal at that point, Crumb found he enjoyed having his consciousness expanded, until he took one bad batch that left him in a fugue state for about a year. Amazingly, this had little effect on his job at American Greetings (and just think, the first acid-inspired art in the United States appeared not in head shops but the more traditional drug stores under such headings as "Birthday", "Commencement' and "Get Well Soon.") In his spare fugue time, certain characters began appearing to Crumb, characters whom would someday soon have names like Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, Eggs Ackley, and Flakey Foont. When Crumb finally emerged from the fugue, he was more restless than ever. On a chance encounter in a bar with a few friends on their way to San Francisco, he decided then and there to join them. He would phone his wife about it when he got there. Though he wasn't really a hippie himself--he dressed like some cub reporter out of a 1930s Warner Brothers movie--he settled somewhere near the intersection of Haight-Ashbury, the Jerusalem of the Counterculture. Hooking up with some mimeograph owner who called himself a publisher, Crumb put out Zap, which he sold himself on street corners. More comics followed, and soon the whole world, at least the portion of the world that had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, got to know Mr. Natural and friends. Actually, one comic story, if you could call it a story, did make its way to the mainstream, where it enjoyed surprising popularity. Though his fan base may have swooned to the  music of Steppenwolf, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix, Crumb's own tastes ran toward 1920s and '30s country and blues. He turned an old song by an obscure musician named Blind Boy Fuller into a one page strip. Characters with big feet and an amazing sense of balance did a kind of reclining strut under the words KEEP ON TRUCKIN'. Endlessly reproduced on posters,T-shirts, bumper stickers, and patches, it soon became one of the most famous images of the late '60s and early '70s. And now Robert Crumb himself was famous (Blind Boy Fuller, though, remained an obscure figure.)



Kurtzman decided it was time for Robert Crumb to meet Hugh Hefner. A job could be in the offering. The idea that Crumb should appear in Playboy seems ridiculous now. Though feminists were none too fond of either one, Crumb's vision of female sexuality varied wildly from Hefner's (steroids vs. silicone). It probably made sense in 1971, though. Crumb was famous and Hefner was famous; why shouldn't the two of them get together? So it was arraigned that Crumb and a few of his underground cartoonist pals should visit the Playboy Mansion in Chicago. According to a 1972 interview, Crumb thought it was cool at first. They hung around the game room and played pinball. Talked to a few bunnies (the help) that were around to serve them. And just explored the place. There was a pool, several TV sets, and on every end table and coffee table was a copy of Playboy. Crumb thought the paneling on the walls looked kind of cheap. As time went on, and it did go on, the whole place began to seem to him like the world's largest Holiday Inn. Eventually, the whole group settled in the dining room, where they ate and waited. And waited. For hours. Where was Hefner? Turns out he was playing backgammon. They asked Kurtzman when could they meet him. "Kurtzman was like sweating," Crumb recalled. "He didn't want anyone to disturb Mr. Hefner. He was worried that someone, me or Jay Lych or Skip Williamson, would upset Mr. Hefner." They left without meeting Mr. Hefner. As far as I know, Crumb hasn't met him yet.


Hefner assistant and Playboy's soon-to-be cartoon editor Michelle Urry did contact Crumb a short time later. She offered him $500 a page and complete freedom, except he couldn't draw anything explicit. If you've ever seen a Crumb comic done between 1967 and 1972, you'll know that removing anything explicit would be like taking the whale out of Moby Dick. Thus, the conversation did not go well. Crumb was also upset that Kurtzman seemed so intimidated by Hefner, and let Urry know that. He turned her down flat. She got mad herself and told him that someday soon the underground cartoon fad would fade, and he'd come crawling back to Playboy begging for a job. She was half right. The fad did fade, and Crumb went through some tough times, but he never worked for Playboy. Except once, when his art, in reduced form, appeared within Little Annie Fanny itself (strip regular Ralphie is shown reading an underground comic.)


Harvey Kurtzman and Robert Crumb remained friends, each writing forwards or introductions to the other's collections. Sometime during the 1970s, Crumb visited Kurtzman at his home in Mount Vernon, New York. It was a big house--Hefner paid well--that was put to good use as he now had four children, daughter Nellie having arrived in 1969. Kurtzman, who had been drinking, showed Crumb an Annie strip that had just come back from Hefner with all sorts of blue pencil markings indicating changes that he wanted made. After acknowledging to Crumb that Hefner had saved him from poverty, Kurtzman began to cry...

You may have cringed upon reading of Kurtzman's breakdown, as I did when I first came across it in a book Crumb had written. You may also have wished that he he'd stuck to his guns, that he'd been more like he was at the outset of his career, a bold, brash young man who through the simple art of lampooning could puncture the assumptions and certainties of a complacent people. But there's a problem. That very boldness and brashness caused him to walk out on the best publisher he would ever have, William M. Gaines, so certain was he that he could produce a higher (and slicker) form of lampoon somewhere else. He stuck to his guns through Trump, Humbug, The Jungle Book, and Help! even as his ammunition was running alarmingly low. When it was near depletion, he over-compensated (as well as was over-compensated) by becoming Hugh Hefner's lackey. It was Kurtzman who repeatedly warned us not to confuse reality with market-driven illusion. As someone who spent his life in such market-driven industries as comic books and magazines, he could not help but get caught up in the confusion himself.

Perhaps we should see the breakdown that Crumb witnessed as a kind of good thing. Remember me telling you before about "The Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Executive Suit" from The Jungle Book? That earlier, darker version of Goodman Beaver who represses and conforms his entire personality out of existence? Kurtzman's tears at least proves that he hadn't. Or, to paraphrase Charles Bukowski, Kurtzman still had a soul left to lose.

Annie Fanny took off her clothes for the last time in June of 1987. For a change, something of Kurtzman's ended because he wanted it to end...No, wait, Playboy, which owned the copyright, did attempt to bring the strip back ten years later with a different writer and artist. It lasted all of two issues.

Not too flattering a portrait of Hefner, is it? Keep in mind, however, that this was basically written from Harvey Kurtzman's (or perhaps Will Elder's and Robert Crumb's) point of view. Hefner, of course, can't now defend himself, and may have gone to his grave completely unaware that he earned such enmity from some of the people who worked under him. At least Hefner's hands-on approach proves that he wasn't quite the pipe-sucking, silk pajama-wearing slacker so often portrayed in the media (including the slice of the media that he himself owned.)

Of course, Hugh Hefner's legacy doesn't begin and end with Little Annie Fanny. What about the rest of it?

  

























































Sorry it took so long, but at least I gave you folks some stuff to look at while I tried to sort out Hef's legacy.

The long-running joke about Hefner's magazine is that if an upstanding member of the community was caught with it in his possession, he could sheepishly defend himself by claiming he read it for the articles. Ha, ha, ha--but how much of a joke was it? Could it be read for the articles? While I doubt anyone ever EXCLUSIVELY perused Playboy for that reason, I'm sure the articles got read. In its own way, Playboy was a general interest magazine, with a sometimes intellectual air about it, and could be appreciated on that level. Kind of like The New Yorker on Viagra. As for the "Playboy philosophy", that you should be able to live any kind of lifestyle as long as you had enough money as Hefner did and could totally escape the economic constraints imposed on the rest of us by the societal concerns of Church, State, and a capitalistic system that occasionally needs to keep its workers in line, was about as accessible to the average prole as a President's Day at an Aston-Martin dealership. Nevertheless, the Sexual Revolution Hefner helped spark and for many embodied in the long run benefited us all, not just A-list celebrities drunkenly trying not to trip over the non-plastic pink flamingos roaming the grounds of the LA Mansion  It may be a stretch to say sex education in school and the birth control pill had anything to do with the Playmate of the Month, but all those phenomenons did come to fruition at about the same time. Finally, in 1955, when Playboy published Charles Beaumont groundbreaking science fiction story "The Crooked Man", it proved that Hefner could look beyond his airbrushed human bunnies and champion, or at least tolerate, desires not his own.

1926-2017