A 78-rpm evening

When it comes to sharp social commentary, few artists in contemporary America can hold a candle to cartoonist Robert Crumb. Sure, some critics slam him for alleged misogyny, and the Women With Big Butts Anti-Defamation League is always after him, even though Crumb seems to appreciate avoirdupois.

However, no one has chronicled the fall of America like Crumb has—its gluttony, its mindless celebrity worship, its propensity for being taken in by the most shameless Bible-beating hucksters and mantra-cooing fakirs. Crumb’s rounded, bulbous drawing style perfectly evokes 20th- century America.

There’s a lot of love in Crumb’s work. In his story That’s Life, which appeared in Arcade magazine in 1975, Crumb traces the history of a 78-rpm blues record. A Mississippi delta blues singer runs away from his wife and kids, hitches a ride to Memphis with two blues-playing buddies, cuts four sides, blows the money on suits, booze and ladies, and gets shot to death by a jealous husband. The Great Depression hits and the record company that recorded him is forced to cut back on blues and folk-music field recordings; the blues singer’s 78 has sold a whopping 16 copies, and gets deleted. Years later, a record collector goes door to door looking for old 78s, talks one elderly lady into rifling her basement for a stack of discs, and pays her a quarter a disc for them. Upon discovering the blues singer’s record, he calls a prominent blues collector and works out a trade for what is the only existing copy of the record. The final two panels feature five men sitting down to listen to it. In the last panel, they beam beatifically.

Crumb moved to France a decade ago from Winters in western Yolo County. When he lived here, the banjo-playing artist played music off and on with the accordion and saw-playing cartoonist Bob Armstrong and bassist/film director Terry Zwigoff, along with mandolinist Allan Dodge, guitarist/violinist Tony Marcus and others. On a recent Sunday night, this loose aggregation—known as the Cheap Suit Serenaders—played a reunion show at the Palms Playhouse in Davis, with Winters instrument maker Keith Cary subbing on bass for Zwigoff and with a trombone-playing car salesman from Pinole playing backup.

The Cheap Suits’ repertoire consists of originals and songs nicked from offbeat 78s—“Alabama Jubilee,” “Persian Rug,” “The Duck’s Yas-Yas.” Musically, they sounded like the jug-band version of an overstuffed chair from one of Crumb’s Mr. Natural strips, and occasionally the controlled chaos would come together like a Mexican jarocho ensemble flying high on mescal—especially when Armstrong would take one of his show-stopping solos on the saw. And, for all his supposed shyness, Crumb seemed remarkably comfortable with the Palms audience. He even cracked a joke about Sammy Kaye, a little insider humor for 78 collectors.

It was a return befitting a true American original. Too bad Crumb doesn’t return more often.