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For Paul Conrad
Posted on Sep 5, 2010
By Mr. Fish
There’s a great passage written by pre-Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth that was published in an article in The Nation in 1957 lamenting the death of “politically radical humor” and the rise of “New Yorker humor,” which he described as humor that invariably hinges on “the whimsical disaster[s]” that beset those who attempt to “do something as elemental as driving a nail or mowing a lawn.” That was 50 years ago and, true to Rexroth’s foreboding, New Yorker humor has pretty much become the yardstick with which we mismeasure our cultural funny bone against what it could and should be today, given such a society as ours, where speech is purported to be free and where so many lampoonable imbeciles rule the land.
In fact, perhaps as a result of fewer and fewer people driving their own nails and mowing their own lawns as the society retrogresses further into the ridiculously class-conscious oligarchy of its own pre-Revolutionary beginnings, New Yorker humor has expanded way beyond merely describing whimsical disasters, of which there are fewer, to describing political disasters, of which there are an increasing number, leaving only those who were alive and working in the earlier part of the 20th century to know how to actually create politically radical humor, albeit with less ferocity and considerably more weariness these days than then.
I met one of these few remaining 20th century radicals in February 2007, a man whom Time magazine called “an acid-penned liberal” in 1960, and had a conversation with him that was not particularly radical or even humorous and was barely political, but why should it have been? Why should any artist be expected to mirror the heightened fury or the magnanimous joy of his art when he’s not actively engaged in creating it? I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s surprising description of Groucho Marx upon meeting him at a restaurant in the late 1970s, when he said that Marx was no funnier than anybody’s elderly uncle whom you might get stuck talking to at a family reunion. Translation: Groucho Marx is not so ethereal that he doesn’t fit into humanity with the rest of us; his magnificent talent doesn’t so much separate him from everybody else as it elevates the cachet of us all, the same way that listening to a recording of Chet Baker singing So che ti perdero and lighting a candle might elevate the cachet of a lousy plate of spaghetti. What was remarkable, I told myself after meeting Paul Conrad, this 20th century establishment radical, and recording two hours of a conversation filled largely with meandering twaddle and reminiscences so worn out that much of their exquisite detail had been obliterated by years of affectionate caressing, was his deep humanity, infectious calm and endearing exhaustion, which is precisely where the greatest art, radical or otherwise, is supposed to eventually lead all of us—isn’t it? Aside from his white-hot contempt for television, George Bush, the death of the environment, the gun lobby and the war in Iraq, the 20th century hell raiser was at peace, finally.
That said, asking Conrad, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and staff cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times during its heyday and, by some people’s account, the greatest editorial cartoonist ever produced by the United States of America, to talk about his cartooning is like asking Thelonious Monk to talk about his musicianship: It’s stupid, particularly because a cartoonist, like a musician, has already found the most eloquent means of expressing himself and it’s definitely not through conversation with a stranger. And while I was aware that no amount of talk could reveal more about the man than simply looking at his enormous body of work, I was thankful to discover, after five minutes of bullshitting with him while I set up the microphone for our interview, that at least Conrad made more sense and was eminently more gracious than I’d heard Monk ever was.
Conrad thought everything was either funny or that it should be or that it absolutely shouldn’t be and he used the word motherfucker better than any octogenarian whom I’d ever hung out with before; that is, sparingly, and only when he felt he couldn’t make his point by using sonuvabitch, asshole or shithead. Similar to the way he drew his cartoons, he was about as obtuse as a very dark line drawn on a white piece of paper in permanent ink, even captioned for the politically impaired.
He hadn’t read his then-new autobiography, “I, Con,” yet when I sat down with him at his Palos Verdes home where he had lived for 30-plus years, the décor a finely aged 1970s amber and chrome, the light poor, everything smelling like pipe smoke, old dog and gray coffee. The clutter of the place, which was substantial, was not disconcerting at all, but rather spoke of an insatiable mind that sought nourishment in devouring everything that it could, whether it was the most recent news scavenged from exploded newspapers or the revisiting of old memories kept alive by more bric-a-brac and knickknacks than his sudden death would be unable to prevent from turning his otherwise dignified estate sale into something vastly more attractive to the flip flop crowd than to Sotheby’s elite. Think a sprawling Saturday bazaar of not for sale gimcrackery.
Scattered around the sunken living room on pedestals were his sculptures, old and new, and parked at the base of the steps that brought me into the room was a 1924 Steinway that was as big as a Buick Skylark, its enormity making the room feel a little bit like a garage, the pretentiousness of such a grand piece of furniture mollified by the happy mess surrounding it. “I understand that the first thing to go on a person is his hands,” I said, patting the piano as I passed. “How are yours holding up?”
“Oh, fine. She’s the joy of my life,” he said, his obvious affection for the instrument all at once moving and mundane, like a marriage ground into a kind of rote elation. He didn’t slow down on our way through the room.
Covering every inch of wall space were paintings, many of them done by his recently deceased twin brother, Jim (like the piano, also born in 1924), family photographs, framed awards and certificates, all of it fitted together like Scrabble tiles with no room left to brag about the fullness of an old man’s life. In fact, the only thing free of the cacophony of stuff was the ceiling, left open, I imagined, to allow Catholicism to flow massively either in or out of the room, depending on who was judging the world that day, God or Conrad.
“You really haven’t read it [your autobiography]?” I said.
“No,” he said, leading me up a small flight of stairs, past a television set that had a UHF dial on it that was as smooth as a seashell, to the small, round kitchen table where his dog, Benjie, and his coffee where waiting for him.
“Well, didn’t you write it? I mean, where did the publishers get the words that are in it?” I said, needing to make the clarification because most of the book was cartoons.
“I didn’t write anything for it,” he said, falling into his chair, his impartiality to the power of the written word revealed by something he said 50 years earlier: I have no idea what the readership is of written editorials, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the readership of editorial cartoons. “They [the publishers] just came out and asked me a bunch of silly questions, over and over again.” I looked down at the silly questions listed in the open notebook that I’d just laid on the table and felt a little like a cheap date. “And who are you again?” he said, lighting his pipe, his eyes appearing as they have in photographs for the last 40 years, like they wanted to get to the bottom of things.
“Dwayne Booth,” I said, showing him the bottom.
“Wayne Booth,” he said confidently, like so many people do, including many of my wife’s relatives who have known me for 20 years.
“Dwayne,” I said, clarifying, like I always do, except with my wife’s relatives. “Mr. Fish is the name that I use on my cartoons. I work for the LA Weekly, the L.A. Times … Truthdig.com, Bob Scheer’s site (Scheer being somebody with whom Conrad worked at the Los Angeles Times for decades), Harper’s Magazine…” I stopped, feeling as if I were incorrectly guessing the weight of his ability to give a shit.
“Mr. Fish?” he said, his facing saying, Should I know your name from the frozen food section of the grocery store? He took a sip of coffee while Benjie tried to nestle his large dusty head into the center of my lap.
“Yup, Mr. Fish,” I said, setting up my tape recorder and wishing that my name were Wayne.
With everything ready to go, he offered me a cup of coffee by pointing me in the direction of the pot and hollering directions, once I’d left the room, as to where a mug could be found. Pouring my cup, I hollered back that I was a twin, as he was, and, in fact, had often wondered if all the attention that I’d gotten growing up had something to do with why I’d become an editorial cartoonist, having developed the expectation that people would always be interested in me and, therefore, that my opinion mattered. “What about you?” I said, sitting down and pressing the record button. “Do you think that the automatic celebrity of being a twin gave you a sense that you had, not so much something to say, but a guaranteed audience who would at least be there to listen?”
“Maybe, although I did most of my drawing [growing up] to spite my father and older brother, Bill, who were right-wingers,” he said. “[My twin] Jim was more of a middle-of-the-road Republican, that is, until they elected this asshole.”
“Better late than never, I guess,” I said, thinking of my own childhood and how I, like Conrad, began creating art as an excuse to piss people off, my first major work, when I was 7, being a hundred or so paper airplanes flown out my bedroom window like peace doves to fill the trees, hedges and yards surrounding my house. What was so inciting about that, besides the littering aspect of the whole exercise, was the message that I’d written on each piece of paper with a black Magic Marker before folding it, which was FUCK YOUR ASS. Who was I trying to spite, exactly? Everybody, the world. Nobody was going to tell me what was off-limits regarding what I was allowed to say, out loud, a hundred or so times. Nobody. With some kids, because they lack any past experience to help them define who they are, it’s easier for them to first decide who or what they don’t want to be before they settle on an identity that is self-perpetuating. Unchanged and refined into an expertise, the habit of ridiculing all that is contrary to a person’s eventual value system is what creates an editorial cartoonist. It is also what typically creates the ideologues on both sides of the political fence that an editorial cartoonist most readily targets.
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