There’s a moment in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary, “Crumb,” when the subject, legendary comic artist Robert Crumb, pulls an old 78 from his shelf and narrates:
“When I listen to old music, that’s one of the few times I actually have a kind of a love for humanity. You hear the best part of the soul of the common people — their way of expressing their connection to eternity or whatever you wanna call it. Modern music doesn’t have that calamitous loss that people can’t express themselves that way anymore, you know.”
And when I see him lean back against the wall, eyes open, listening to Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues,” I believe him. I believe for a moment that we’ve lost it. We really missed the point, dropped the ball. Some “calamitous loss” has been, well, lost.
Later in the film, Crumb roams the Haight neighborhood, sketching locals both real and imaginary — a man meditating outside a corner store, a drunk passed out on the toilet, beef heads with Adidas logos emblazoned on their chests. He draws portraits of commodified doom. In his sketches, yuppies chat, “Gosh isn’t it a beautiful day?” and headphones plaster every ear. In one, chunky twenty-somethings talk while a man hangs, crucified. The title? “Hey, I’m dying up here.”
Walking down the street with his brother, Crumb says, “People can’t wait to have the money to get their hands on this stuff. It’s a beautiful world,” with no hint of sarcasm.
Over the last month I’ve been fixated on the idea of the “inner scream,” prompted by a viewing of the British actress Billie Whitelaw’s 1973 performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Not I.” The play, if it’s appropriate to call it so, is a lengthy, one-person machine gun stream of phrases linked loosely by the concept of a woman suffering some traumatic experience. She recalls grocery stores and deadbeat parents, desperately pleading to some silent higher power. In the onslaught of words and spit, the performance reaches a hypnotic sort of hysteria, abstract but lucid. The sound itself, without definition, expresses a furious, impressionistic calamity.
To me, the inner scream is a production of the id — it’s the unknowable essence of self talking, communicating something, singing.
So if 51-year-old Robert Crumb’s monopolized ideal of the inner scream exists solely in Geeshie Wiley and old Charley Patton 78s, good for him. But that “calamitous loss,” that “inner scream,” that “soul of the common people” — pop music — can be found in just about anything.
Crumb’s unapologetic with his opinions, which is part of what makes him so endearing. But his take on music is practically rockist; his school favors the passion, the reality, authenticity. Also, his narration tips at the basis of early communications studies — that we have effectively lost our culture, that everything we speak, “like” and find comfort in are ideas that have been commodified and spit-shined before we were finished incubating. The words I write are bought and sold for cheaper meanings.
But who am I to deny the inner scream in Waka Flocka? “Born This Way”? Debussy’s Dieu qu’il la fait bon regarder? I find “calamitous loss” in songs so mechanical and corporate Crumb would spit on me. Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” is just as calamitous as U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love).” Who am I to render the shivers down your spine are any less worthwhile than mine? If our emotions can be commodified, then music can be too. But that music is just as viable as Crumb’s beloved 78s, it is the state of our common soul, it is the essence of modern pop.
At the end of the movie, Crumb moves to France — he’s had it with America. He watches anxiously as moving men as stocky as his Haight sketches pack his precious 78s — into a massive truck. “Not I” ends with a fade, no conclusion, an endless scream. The cycle goes on and on.