BY JONATHAN VALANIA Almost everyone knows R. Crumb‘s work whether they realize it or not. Keep On Truckin‘? You’re soaking in it. Cheap Thrills? You betcha. Big butts? He invented them. Devil doll glamazons offering piggyback rides to nebbishy four-eyed horn dogs? Sweet Jesus! Giddyup! (If none of this rings a bell, you would do well by renting Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary, Crumb.)
Aline Kominsky-Crumb, his wife of 35 years, is not quite the household word her husband is, but that may well change, depending on how hip the household. Aline has been cartooning as long as her husband has, but generally her comics have received about as much love as Yoko Ono at a White Album recording session. Though formally art schooled and a capable painter, not to mention a very attractive woman, Aline has always opted to draw herself hideous and, to the untrained eye, incompetently. Actually, her work looks incompetent to the trained eye, too — as even her famous husband will tell you. At one point she got so discouraged, she gave up drawing comics altogether. This was after yet another publisher almost went bankrupt putting her work in print. “When he told me about how poorly the issue sold, I asked him if I could have the unsold copies,” she says. “He told me he used them to insulate his barn.”
Not that Aline is unaccustomed to bad reviews. One day when she was 14 and putting on make-up in the bathroom mirror, her father barged in announcing he needed to relieve himself. And besides, he told his daughter, “You can’t shine shit.” Her mother could be just as discouraging: fearing her daughter was getting too fat, she restricted her French fry intake at the family dinner table and once literally choked Aline until she spit out a fry purloined from her brother’s plate. Needless to say, Aline escaped as soon as possible. Fortunately, growing up on Long Island, The Big City was just a train ride away and by her late teens, she was living in a hovel on the Lower East Side, dropping acid and partying with the Fugs as the Beat Generation morphed psychedelically into the Hippy Generation.
When New York got too seedy and dangerous, she headed for Arizona, getting more than her fill of cosmic cowboys and cactus peyote, before heading to San Francisco with some flowers in her hair. It was there that she met Robert Crumb, and the rest, as they say, is history. All of which is encapsulated in NEED MORE LOVE, Aline’s endlessly fascinating graphic memoir, itself a fitting companion piece to the R. Crumb Handbook, published in 2005.
As a Valentine’s Day gift to his wife, the increasingly hermetic cartoonist agreed to interview his wife at the New York Public Library, and Phawker, in turn, interviewed the couple the next day. Calling their hotel room on Thursday morning was like a scene out of Crumb, as Aline simultaneously answered our questions and barked out directions to Robert on how to make the coffee maker work. The notoriously press-shy Robert is not doing any this time out, and the interview was only supposed to be with Aline but he kept chiming in and we finally convinced him to get on the line and tell us a little bit about growing up in Philadelphia.
PHAWKER: To hear you tell it, a lot of who you became was a direct reaction against the kind of people your parents were. Can you give us a brief thumbnail sketch of your parents?
ALINE KOMINKSY-CRUMB: They were part of what I call The Post-War Jerk Generation. My mom was spoiled, high-strung and on diet pills, which only made her crazier. My dad was a salesman, a bitter Willie Loman-esque loser. Growing up Jewish in Long Island in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was all about keeping up appearances — there was no food in the fridge, but we had marble steps out front of the house. In fairness, they were young and didn’t really know any better, but they were quite psychologically abusive. Put this way: I became me and my brother became a heroin addict. Like Robert, I escaped into art when I was about eight.
PHAWKER: You were going to see The Fugs play in the Lower East Side before you were old enough to drive?
ALINE KOMINSKY-CRUMB: At the time I was reading things like Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead and escaping into the city as often as I could. One day I saw a flier for the Fugs so I went to see them perform and it totally blew my little mind, although I probably only ‘got’ about half of it. I went to see them a lot. I would always try to sneak backstage for the little after-show parties but they always threw me out for being too young, but one day I did get into one of those parties and some guy handed me a sugar cube and said ‘Here ya go, girlie.’ It was LSD and I of course had no idea what was going on. I took the train home and I’m laying in bed hallucinating when my parents knocked on the door. When they opened it, they were standing in the doorway and there was this strange light behind them and I remember thinking they looked like monsters! They thought I was drunk so they started yelling and hitting me. Here I am on LSD for the first time being beaten up by my parents. They grounded me after that, semi-permanently. But I just hid a ladder in the bushes outside my window and I would bar my bedroom door with a chair and sneak out and head to the city. That was the beginning of my ‘real life.’
PHAWKER: It was around this time that you ‘met’ George Harrison . . .
ALINE KOMINSKY-CRUMB: I was a Beatles fanatic and George was my man. I was sure he would love me as much as I loved him if he could only meet me. Long story short, when the Beatles were coming to town, I found out from my uncle who owned a store at Idlewild Airport [now JFK] that the Beatles were arriving there, even though the radio was saying they were arriving at Penn Station just to throw everyone off the trail. So anyway, there’s 10,000 kids hanging off the rafters at Penn Station waiting for the Beatles to arrive and I’m pretty much all by myself at the airport. When they get off the plane, I literally jump over the crowd barrier and get George in a bear hug and I look up at him expecting to see love in his eyes and realize that’s he’s afraid for his life. By then the cops had peeled me off and dragged me away — which, by the way, was captured by a news camera and broadcast on the evening news, much to my parents horror.
PHAWKER: Not long after that you headed west . . .
ALINE KOMINSKY-CRUMB: I got my degree in painting and then my father died. My mother wanted me to get an apartment with her in the city and live like swinging singles. I was so horrified, I convinced my best friend at the time to marry me, just to avoid living with my mother. My new husband wanted to move out to Arizona, which was like another planet to a girl from Long Island. So beautiful. Anyway, to make a long story short, I spent a lot of time eating peyote, drinking Coors beer and laying on my back staring at the stars in the back of a pick-up truck.
PHAWKER: Sweet. And then you went to San Francisco right as the Summer of Love was flowering and it was there that you met Robert Crumb.
ALINE KOMINSKY-CRUMB: I was introduced by a girlfriend. I had heard of his work before I met him, but she told me he was really creepy and ugly. When I finally met him I thought he was shy and sweet, but then he’s my type — I’ve always been a sucker for depressed intellectual white boys in glasses. Plus, he was sexually perverted in a way that appealed to me. You have to remember, at the time I was looking to have as much wanton sex as possible.
PHAWKER: Can you explain the origin of Robert’s attraction to powerfully built women with big butts and pillar-like thighs?
ALINE KOMINSKY-CRUMB: Giant nuns? Being a little kid crawling under the table and fixating on women’s legs? Who can say. His brother wound up being attracted to young boys. Robert is magnetically drawn to strong women and really put off by strong men. I like wimpy guys, but at the same time I am submissive and want the man to totally take me over. So our desires match up pretty perfectly.
PHAWKER: Can you explain the piggyback thing?
ALINE KOMINSKY-CRUMB: I always like to show off my strength. The first time I met Robert, he jumped up on my back and I started trotting around — it appeals to the horsey in me.
PHAWKER: Well, that makes sense. You and Robert live in a quaint old house in a village in the South of France, having fled America 16 years ago — appalled at the encroachment of McMansions, fundamentalist Christians and crass hyper-consumerism. When you come back from time to time these days do things seem even more sick and dysfunctional than you last remembered?
ALINE KOMINSKY-CRUMB: Definitely. When you step off the plane you are just assaulted with this hyper-stimulation and hyper-commercialism and the sense that most people are leading virtual lives instead of ‘real’ ones. But just to be clear, the French can be just as cantankerous and annoying, and they are terrible drivers. There are 1,800 people living in our village, representing 23 nationalities. And that includes a lot of rough-edged peasant folk, who I having nothing but respect for. Also, they hid a lot of Jews there during the war, so I feel safe.
PHAWKER: You look fantastic, by the way. You mentioned last night you had some ‘work’ done…
ALINE KOMINSKY-CRUMB: When my face fell, I had this procedure done to restore my cheek bones. Basically, they suck fat our of your thighs and inject it into your cheeks. Afterwards my upper lip swelled up and for weeks I looked like Marge Simpson and then the swelling went away and I had my cheekbones back! Robert says I don’t look any better.
PHAWKER: You guys have an ‘open marriage.’ Robert still has a lover that he visits once a year in Oregon. You and Robert live with your French lover, aka your ‘second husband,’ and he was in the audience last night. I’m curious how that works. Do you guys plan dates or do you have a big chalkboard with a schedule on it?
ALINE KOMINKSY-CRUMB: We’re old and not as sex-driven as we once were. We all eat together. Most of the time I stay with Robert. But when I want to do things that Robert doesn’t like, such as going to the beach or going into Paris — or for that matter when I need somebody to do the ‘man’ things that Robert can’t do, such as fix the plumbing or drive a car — I go with the ‘second husband.’ I always say that Robert is emotionally autistic — he just incapable of jealousy. Besides, monogamous marriage is a relatively modern invention. People have lived as tribes for much, much longer. That’s how we live, like a tribe.
[in the background Robert can be heard saying, “Just tell ’em we’re polyamorous.”]
PHAWKER: I know Robert’s not doing any press, but do you think we could ask him just one question about growing up in Philadelphia? [Robert agrees and gets on the line] Great. First of all, can you tell me exactly where you lived and when?
ROBERT CRUMB: Hmm, we left town when I was seven. We actually lived in a couple places. The first was South 53rd St. When my father got out of the Marines, we moved to this housing project down by the oil refineries. Eventually it became this incredibly violent black slum and it’s since been razed. I have a lot of nostalgic memories from my childhood in Philadelphia in the ’40s: the brick houses, the trolley cars, the coal man, the ice man, me and my brother Charles delivering groceries in our little red wagon and then climbing up on the El to watch the trains go by.
[Charles committed suicide while Crumb was in post-production.]