So I was waiting around at Time Tested Books in Sacramento, where I was scheduled to do a signing in support of the “Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song” graphic novel. It was April 18, 2013, and I was a half hour early. I had asked the legendary cartoonist/musician Robert Armstrong to come and play a few Carter Family songs at the event. I was waiting for him to show up, in the mostly empty store, to see if he needed help setting up. A few minutes before starting time, he walked into the store, and right behind him came a bearded man in spectacles, looking very much like Robert Crumb. I quickly looked away and thought: “That can’t be Robert Crumb!” He lives in France after all. But then again, he and Armstrong used to play together in The Cheap Suit Serenaders. I looked back and found that the bearded man was indeed Robert Crumb, a man many consider to be the world's greatest living cartoonist. He shook my hand and asked if Frank (Young) was going to be there. I told him that Frank would have been there, had he known that his pen-pal R. Crumb was going to attend.
I had requested that Armstrong play few Carter Family songs, then a few old time songs of his choosing. The two of them played a lot more than I’d expected, and treated the audience of 25-30 people to what felt like an hour’s worth of music. The Carter Family songs sometimes had gaps in the lyrics; Mr. Armstrong (on a Gibson L5 guitar, Mr. Crumb on Banjo) apologized, explaining that he’d had to “cram” to learn some of these songs, to meet my request. In the second half, with some instrument changes, they played material they were more familiar with, and the musical sparks started to fly.
My father was in attendance, and whispered to me: “Is that really R. Crumb?” “Yes,” I answered. “What’s he doing here?” – “I don’t know.” - “Well, you didn’t give him much of an introduction.” I had nervously introduced “The Two Bobs” and after reading a few prepared remarks about Bob Armstrong (creator of Mickey Rat), simply said: “And this is Bob Crumb, who I’m sure you all know.” So, during an instrument change, I cited my father’s admonishment and tried to give a more proper introduction… “He normally lives in France, but is making a rare appearance here tonight. He’s a comics legend, and he’s my hero; this is a big night for me.”
Crumb interrupted: “Your hero?! Harold Gray is your hero.”
I agreed and added Frank King to my short list of cartooning heroes.
As things wound down, they asked the audience for a request. Someone said: “How about a train song?” Someone else: “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad!” Crumb jumped into "Workin' on the Railroad" and played the whole song beautifully. Armstrong commented something to the effect of: “That’s the last word in Cornball Americana.” They closed with a smokin’ instrumental.
When the fun was over, I managed to sign a few books and chat with some old friends who came to the event, two from my high school, one from college, and two Pulse Magazine alums (Jackson Griffith and cartoonist Michael King). Patrons talked with Crumb and Armstrong, and I got to meet cartoonist/musician Christine Shields as well. My father talked politics with Crumb (who showed us his French medical card – “I can get treated and when I leave [the doctor’s office] there is no charge.”). My dad concluded that now it was up to us younger folks to fix all the problems. And so ended one of the best evenings of my life.
One final note: The owner of Time Tested Books, Peter Keat, had told Crumb and Armstrong that the Cheap Suit Serenaders had played at his wedding about 30 years ago. Crumb and Armstrong asked the same question that was on my mind: “Has the marriage lasted?” “Yes,” said Mr. Keat, “the marriage has lasted all these years.” Crumb breathed a sigh of relief… “You managed to avoid the curse of the Cheap Suit Serenaders.”
More photos from the event are posted here.