We stand at the cusp of two decades, the “Me Generation” poised reluctantly to pass the torch to the “Greed Generation.” An overcast day in late August and a crisped fairgrounds in Sausalito, California. I’m 14. My father, Steven M. Johnson, has brought me here to see in person what I’ve only read about. This is the Whole Earth Convention, the live manifestation of the catalog, then quarterly review, that detailed for the first time trends that many years later went mainstream, indeed global. Personal computers. Software. Smart drugs. Cyberpunk. Sustainability. Deep ecology. All beginning with a vision by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand of the earth from space.
I am only just aware of Brand, the Merry Prankster who got off the bus with a head full of good hash, obsessed with the idea that everybody, not just freaks and heads, needed to see our planet as it actually is–a globe without borders, enfolded in a fragile atmosphere that sustains billions of lives. The iconic NASA photograph that graced the first Whole Earth Catalog would be the catalyst for so many features of our physical and mental landscape we take for granted now, from recycling to the Internet. Because–well, just look at it. The thing speaks for itself. No barriers based on politics, religion or ideology. One planet, one home for all of us.
But for me at 14, all this is well, not irrelevant exactly, but superfluous. Because while I can see Brand himself walking about amidst the crowds of aging hippies, along with people like Woodstock luminary and premier acid clown Wavy Gravy, I’m more interested in a stoop-shouldered guy with Coke-bottle glasses and a bow tie who looks like he stepped bewildered from a 1930’s jug band and is still getting his bearings. In other words, R. Crumb.
It’s a family ritual by this point–when the Whole Earth Review arrives in the mail, my dad and I immediately scan the table of contents to see if there is fresh Crumb. We know what we’re looking for, and what we’re going to get–the satirical comic version of comfort food. Crumb’s take on the eco-green gestalt is much more pessimistic, and his jaundiced parody of the NASA photo depicts an orb of disease-puckered, purulent flesh rotting in the firmament. He’s not so easily taken in by the glad handing longhairs who shortly will shear their locks and put away the God’s Eyes and the patchouli oil to emerge as Yuppies, turning peace and love into commodities. He is a realist, a skeptic, and a fan of big thighs and nuclear-proofed butts. In other words, my kind of guy.
We make our way over to a group of fans clustered around Crumb. From his pained expression, it’s obvious that the Crumblebum has already reduced them to clusters of heavily cross hatched ink sprouting desultory appeals for autographs. “I don’t give autographs,” he’s saying as my dad and I move in.
“Are you Robert Crumb?” asks my dad.
The last of the great medieval thinkers looks for the source of the voice. “Yeah,” he mutters.
“My son and I are big admirers of yours.”
“Thanks,” he says. The air seems to coagulate around us and you can practically hear a faucet tap somewhere squeezing out a single drop of water.
My dad clears his throat and gestures to me. “I raised my son on your comics,” he says proudly.
“Poor kid,” says Crumb.
And that is it–our encounter with the creator of Zap, Weirdo, Hup, Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, Devil Girl, Mode O’ Day and so many other characters inhabiting the permanent pantheon of comic book fame. It is brief, awkward and anticlimactic.
“Well, what did you think?” my dad asks.
“He seems like he’s trying to squeeze himself out of his own skin,” I say.
And then I realize something that will serve me well in the future: Crumb’s greatness is in the work itself. The art. The magnificent, limber girls his comic alter egos subject to degrading sexual assaults, all vain and ultimately pointless in the face of their superiority to him. The man is not to be found in the flesh and blood and bone, but in the inked simulacra. And I can’t wait to go home, if only to anticipate the appearance in the mailbox of new issues of The Whole Earth Review, in which, months from now, braless women with enormous thighs will torment the libido of a former greeting card artist from the midwest who cannot escape his cravings for old jazz records and healthy Amazons.
And as for the whole earth? It’s still riven with religious and sectarian and political conflict, now more than ever. Not a week goes by without reports of random violence, school shootings, massacres. The social media, the grandchild of Brand’s eureka moment, is awash with hostility and flame wars. Far from bringing us all together, our technology exposes the fault lines in painful relief. But there is still Crumb, and satire, and lovingly rendered ass, and for that, I am thankful.