A curious tale this, about an artist who draws an album cover for a band he does not care for, playing a music style he does not listen to, appealing to an audience he does not connect with. And to top it, the art selected for the front cover was the one he intended for the back cover. The result: one of the most iconic album covers to come out of the late 1960s. This is the story of Robert Crumb’s cover art for Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company’s career-changing album Cheap Thrills.
The story of this album cover starts in January of 1967, when Crumb moved to San Francisco. The previous two years were spent soaking in LSD and travelling between New York, Chicago, and Detroit. The drug was legal then and an eye opener for many, as he remembers: “At that moment, 1965-1966, it was very exciting. You got in a subway and you were a person that took LSD. If there was another person on that subway who has also taken LSD, you immediately knew who they were, you knew each other. You’d look in their eyes and you knew and they knew you had. It was like an intimate brotherhood of people who had seen through the whole thing in some way that most people didn’t have a clue at all. There was that golden moment.”
During these two years he published the character of Fritz the Cat, the most outrageous feline in history, in various magazines including Help! and Cavalier. Other characters started their life during that period and bloomed after his move to the Hippie capital. They included the mystic guru Mr. Natural, the sex-crazed Mr. Snoid and last but not least, Snoid’s favorite companion Angelfood McSpade, the insatiable African black woman who took stereotyping to new levels.
Upon his arrival in San Francisco, Crumb quickly found his way to Haight Ashbury and the Psychedelic Shop and immersed himself in the carefree culture of the town: “San Francisco was a great town at the time, a really beautiful city. After living in Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Detroit, all these really depressing industrial cities, San Francisco seemed like a sweet little cupcake with Victorian houses and pretty parks.” The town offered him the best environment to indulge in the things that most interested him: drawing wild comics and taking acid. Oh, and of course, sex.
Talking about LSD and its impact on the counter-culture, Crumb said: “LSD was the road to Damascus for the hippies. It turned the left wing serious political anti-war movement into something religious and visionary. It was no longer political, folk music, help the Negros, fight the war and all that. It became mystical, saving the earth, the preciousness of nature, living close to nature. Much more radical and extreme.” He was drawing all that time, adapting old cartoon styles to the hippie hallucinogen vision, slowly picking up interest and recognition. After contributing his work to various underground magazines, he was invited to create a full comic magazine named Zap. The first issue featured his favorite Mr. Natural on the cover.
The publication of Zap Magazine provided exposure but no income and Crumb was nearly penniless. Copies of the first issue were printed, folded and stapled by Crumb and sold on the street at Haight-Ashbury for 25 cents a copy. Proprietors of stores in that hip area did not get what’s with these comic books he was offering them. They stocked psychedelic art nouveau concert posters, incense, pipes, bongs, candles, not comic books that looked like Popeye on the cover. But within six months Zap comics caught on and Crumb became known for his talent as an underground comics artist. None describes the world of Crumb better than Crumb: “My comics appealed to the hard-drinking, hard-fucking end of the hippie spectrum as opposed to the spiritual, Eastern-religious, lighter-than-air type hippie.” Still, monetary rewards were not forthcoming from hippie stardom. He wrote in a letter in June 1968: “What good has fame done me? I’m broke and girls still act aloof. Time has come for a change! Bwah howdy!” In that same letter, addressed to his friend Mike Britt, he mentions an important meeting, contrasting it with the sad affair of his monogamous relationship: “I am going over to meet Janis Joplin tonight… CAN’T WAIT! Which brings me to another important point, which is my sex life has been sliding downhill lately so I’m trying to do something about that! The only girl I’m making it with is my wife, and getting’ tired of just her all the time.” Words that would send chills down conservative Americans’ spines, but we are at the center of the hippie galaxy in 1968, the time and place where anything goes. Was Janis his salvation from bedroom boredom? Lets stick with the topic of this article and assume that she was just asking him to draw the cover of her band’s second album, which is exactly what happened.
Crumb had no patience for much of the music surrounding him in San Francisco or elsewhere in the late 1960s. This is blasphemy for anyone (myself included) who cares about all the great music created in those days, the golden age of rock and psychedelic music. But Crumb came from another era, mentally, and to him this music was commercialism personified compared to the roots music from the 1920s and 1930s that moved him: “I had no patience for any of that psychedelic pop music or crap that came in the 60s: The Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison, The Doors, The Beatles, Bob Dylan. I had little or no interest in any of that. I thought I had found some music that was much more real, that came from the heart of people’s culture but had been wiped out by mass media and commercialism.”
But Crumb made an exception with Janis Joplin, connecting with her for their mutual love of old Blues music: “She wasn’t nationally known yet. I remember going to see her at the Avalon Ballroom and you could tell right away that she had an exceptional voice and she would go far. She started out singing old time blues like Bessie Smith. She was kind of a folknik originally.“ While he did not care for her current band and the psychedelic spin they took on blues, he recognized her ability to belt out the good ol’ blues: “Janis had played with earlier bands just playing country blues and it was much better. Way, way better. She’s singing well, not screaming, not playing to the audience that wanted to watch her sweat blood. In the beginning she was just an authentic, genuine Texas country-girl shouter.”
Crumb was not the first choice for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s album cover. The band, which rose to meteoric success immediately after their milestone performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, was quickly signed to Columbia Records who wanted an album quick to cash in on the emerging flower power market. The original title for the band’s first album for Columbia was Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills, a fair summary of the band’s credo. That, of course, did not fly with the suits at Columbia who nixed the blunt Sex and Dope and left only the vague Cheap Thrills. When it came time for the album cover, the band’s idea was to go with an expected band photo, with a minor twist of taking the photo in their birthday suits. The result proved unsatisfactory, and another no-no for the suits who make the decisions.
The idea of going with a standard band photograph was not abandoned yet, as Drummer Dave Getz remembers: “Then Bob Cato, CBS’s art director, thought we should do a photo session with Richard Avedon, perhaps the most famous fashion photographer in the world. Avedon did his ‘Avedon thing’ on us; the fan blowing our hair, the strobe lights flashing, white background, random rearrangement of our faces. It was another huge and costly miss. The photos were good but more about Avedon than us.”
What’s a band to do now? Enter Crumb the Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills universe. Drummer Dave Getz recalls the moment the idea of asking Crumb to do the cover came up: “We had a huge loft/warehouse in SF where we rehearsed and I lived. I remember us all sitting around and talking ideas for the cover and I said ‘How about asking R.Crumb?’ Janis, James (Gurley, guitar player) and I were all big fans of his work, we loved his cartoons which were appearing in the SF underground newspapers and Zap Comics. But outside of SF not that many people knew of his genius.” Through a mutual friend they got Crumb’s number and Janis called him. Crumb continues the tale: “Janis asked me to do an album cover. I liked Janis OK and I did her cover. I took speed and did an all-nighter. The front cover I designed wasn’t used at all. They used the back cover for the front. I got paid $600. The album cover impressed the hell out of girls much more so than the comics. I got a lot of mileage out of that over the years!” Getz adds: “The next weekend Crumb came to our show at The Carousel Ballroom, sat on the floor in our backstage dressing room and observed. He really wasn’t into our music but it didn’t matter. It was maybe one or two days later Crumb called Janis to come and pick up what he’d done.”
Getz is understandably mild in his description of Crumb’s opinion of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Here is Crumb’s version, unadulterated: “She was a swell gal and a very talented singer. Ever heard any of this pre-Big Brother stuff she recorded? She was great. Then she got together with those idiots. The main problem with Big Brother was they were amateur musicians trying to play psychedelic rock and be heavy and you listen to it now and it’s bad… just embarrassing.” Agree with him or not, this is Crumb. Gotta love his candid way of describing things in words and images.
Back to that cover. Crumb’s original idea for the front cover was a cartoon of the band performing on stage with the band’s faces pasted on them. The band was less than overwhelmed by this, but then they looked at what Crumb delivered for the back cover and they saw the light. A comic strip with a panel for each of the songs plus band members credits. They immediately decided to make it the front cover and forever cemented the iconic status of that comic strip among album covers.
Lets give the band some and listen to a few tunes from that album, while looking at the comic panels related to them.
We begin with I Need A Man To Love, a blues-rock number that Crumb adorned with his idea of a well-endowed woman (Janis) stretched on a bed, looking in need, of a man.
Next is the band’s fantastic cover of Summertime, George Gershwin’s song from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. The song has been covered many times in operatic and jazz renditions, but here it takes a completely different spin with a wonderful arrangement and solo by the band’s guitarist Sam Andrew. As for Crumb’s depiction of that scene from the musical, lets not even go there. Suffice it to say that a cover like that will not see the light of day today.
And one more, the song that put the band and Janis Joplin on the map at the Monterey Pop Festival, Big Mama Thornton’s Ball and Chain. The song closes the album with a bang with one of the dirtiest guitar sounds committed to vinyl and a vocal performance for the ages.
Cheap Thrills was released in August of 1968, steadily climbing the Billboard LPs chart until it reached the top and stayed there 8 consecutive weeks. When Janis Joplin announced during a show at the Fillmore East in the fall of 1968 that their album cover was the work of R.Crumb, they received the biggest standing ovation of the night. Crumb was a hero for the hippies, but by that point he was on a very different wavelength. He liked some aspects of the Hippie movement, what he termed as seeing through the hype of consumer culture. He valued how they strived to live simply and saw the ecology movement being sparked by that. But he quickly became disillusioned by the movement: “Since it was mostly children of the middle class, it was immediately something for them to be smug about. ’Oh, I have seen the light and you haven’t. I’m beautiful, I’m spiritual. I lost my ego and you haven’t.’ It became where in any social gathering everybody sat around trying to out-cool each other.” But as he admits, he never felt comfortable in that environment anyway, even when it was at its peak of innocence: “I couldn’t kick off my shows and go dance in the park. I didn’t have it in me.”
In November of 1968, when the album peaked at the top of the LP charts, the top 10 albums also included Electric Ladyland and Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Time Has Come by The Chambers Brothers, Crown of Creation by Jefferson Airplane, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Wheels of Fire by Cream. This was the golden age of psychedelic music. Crumb was inside the bubble physically, but not mentally.
I want to spend the last part of this article discussing the music Crumb DID like, for which he produced many album covers and portraits of musicians, all of them wonderful articles of art. None of them as remotely well known as Cheap Thrills, however by all means worth looking at.
Crumb owns a large collection of old 78 albums. He talked elaborately about his passion for the music he loves, and the moment he started collecting music: “I always liked the kind of music you’d hear in the background of old movies from the early ‘30s, the early sound movies and cartoons. And then in my searching for old books and comic books, these junk stores had these old 78 records. One day, out of curiosity, I bought some of these records. They were very cheap. I put the records on and voila! ‘Oh my god, that’s the music, that’s the music from these old movies, that’s incredible.’ I was sixteen and I remember very clearly the day that I discovered that you could find those records. They were lying around everywhere in those days, in 1959.”
In his teens Crumb was exposed to 1950s pop music, which he describes as something he had to suffer through, singers like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Doris Day. He had a period of reprieve with the advent of rock n roll, Elvis Presley and Little Richard: “There was some feeling of blues and old time country in that early rock and roll, it was coming out of really low life in the South. Those people all came from the lowest rung of society.” That period did not last long for him, as it was quickly commercialized for middle class consumption, and he stack with old black blues and folk music ever since.
Asked about how a white guy connects so deeply with black music created in the 1930s, he answered: “I don’t know. There’s something so raw, kind of beauty that speaks to me in a deep and direct way. Personally I barely even know any black people and I can’t relate to lower class black culture very well at all. It’s very alien to me in a certain way, and people I’ve known from that black culture, I’ve never been able to get very close to, because their values are so different. So what is it about their music that speaks so directly? It has some universal appeal because it has had such a big influence on the music of the entire world.”
What a better way to close this article about Crumb and his contributions as an artist to the music world, then mention the stint he had in the mid 1970s as a musician himself. After settling down in Madison, California, Crumb started playing banjo and mandolin in the Cheap Suit Serenaders Band: “They were my pals for years. We sat around playing music together and somebody said we could play a job for $100, so we agreed. It was interesting for a while, but I came to the point where I realized I had to quit. I asked myself ‘Do I want to get more deeply involved in this music business?’ and I really didn’t.”
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this one about another great album art coming out of San Francisco in the late 1960s:
Categories: Album Art