Eight Of The Most Surprising Samples In Hip Hop History

Originally published on MadeLoud,  Aug 25, 2011.


Playing “spot the sample” has long been a favorite pastime for hip-hop fans. While it’s easy enough to pick out the endless parade of James Brown, Funkadelic and Meters samples, some producers make their audiences work a little harder. With the assistance of the invaluable whosampled.com, we’ve assembled a smattering of rap’s most surprising samples.

Del the Funkee Homosapien Samples The Monkees

Del hit it big on college radio in the early ‘90s, largely on the strength of the sardonic, infectious single “Mistadobalina.” His lyrical evisceration of the titular music industry sycophant was so thorough and personal that it’s hard to imagine “Bob Dobalina” being anything but Del’s own creation. Dedicated followers of ‘60s pop, however, already knew Bob well from the Monkees’ exceedingly strange filler track “Zilch.” “Zilch” isn’t much more than a minute-long cacophony of nonsense phrases, one of which is Peter Tork’s repeated intonation of “Mister Dobalina, Mister Bob Dobalina.” In its natural habitat it doesn’t seem much like a future hip-hop hook, but it’s hard to argue with an icon.

Xzibit Samples Barbra Streisand

One of the more surreal moments in recent Academy Awards history came when a visibly befuddled Barbra Streisand announced Eminem’s win for Best Original Song in 2003. The Academy could scarcely have selected a better embodiment of the bland old establishment to pass the torch off to Hollywood’s new age. Unhip though she may be, Streisand samples have turned up on tracks by everyone from RZA to Royce da 5’9”. Maybe the most fascinating repurposing comes from producer Thayod Ausar and the decidedly non-easy-listening Xzibit, whose 1996 “Paparazzi” samples not just any Barbra, but 1976’s Classical Barbra LP. Xzibit’s grim cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame and fortune pairs surprisingly well with the lilting strings and ethereal vocal of “Pavane (Vocale).” Babs may not have been ready for hip-hop, but hip-hop appears to have been ready for her.

Master P Samples Tom Waits

Tom Waits’ distinctive percussion and impeccable hipster credentials would seem to make him a natural sample source for backpack rappers, but only a handful of artists have taken the bait (Atmosphere, De La Soul and 3rd Bass among them). Perhaps the unlikeliest MC to dip into the Waits well is hipster kryptonite Master P. The off-kilter swagger of Waits’ “Underground” propels “I Got the Dank,” a deep cut from P’s early LP The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me! Channeling a macabre meditation on the lives of the dead into a prototypical weed and booze ballad may seem a little suspect, but of course Tom has a long history of lyrical debauchery himself (although his rhymes tend to run a tad deeper than “chronic sack, gonna fuck with the endo / You ain’t down with the mob you out the window”).

Devin the Dude Samples James Taylor

“Right Now” is a standout track in the Devin the Dude catalog for a number of reasons. One, it’s just a remarkably mellow groove. Two, it starts out as a goof about a stoned plane ride and morphs into a moving rumination on the fragility of life. Three, it accomplishes all this on the back of an acoustic guitar riff from one of James Taylor’s cheesiest chunks of Lite FM fodder. “Shower the People” might sound like the title of an R. Kelly B-side, but it’s really just Taylor incessantly encouraging us to shower our friends with love. Kudos to Devin for pushing the tune into some deeper territory.

Insane Clown Posse Samples Nipsey Russell

The catalog of Insane Clown Posse sample sources reads mostly as you’d expect: plenty of early gangsta rap, a bit of classic rock and a whole lot of cannibalizing their own songs. At least 1991’s uncharacteristically low-key “Life at Risk” goes a bit farther afield, calling up Nipsey Russell’s soulful performance of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” from 1978’s The Wiz. A legendary comedian baring his emotions as the Tin Man in a sociopolitical Wizard of Oz adaptation is a far cry from standard Insane Clown Posse fare. The sample never gets around to Nipsey’s vocal, but the song’s melancholy air is in full effect. The jazzy organ and piano riff add smoky flavor to an atypically thoughtful ICP track, albeit one that’s still littered with requisite amounts of murder and misogyny.

Bone Brothers Sample Bauhaus

At this stage of its existence, hip-hop has been mashed up with nearly every conceivable genre, from country to metal to show tunes. Goth, however, has never taken much of a foothold in the rap game, despite the cult popularity of horror-core acts like Tyler the Creator and early Gravediggaz. Given Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s penchant for dark themes and occultism, it makes some sense that spin-off group Bone Brothers would be among the few to sample goth godfathers Bauhaus. It’s still an iffy match on paper, but in practice a dreary guitar lick from “She’s in Parties” paints a moody landscape for the grim, fast-paced flows of “The Struggle.” Plus, could there be a more perfectly mismatched pair of Petes than Peter Murphy and Petey Pablo?

Wiz Khalifa samples Yoko Ono

Once reviled as little more than a coattail-riding harridan, Yoko Ono has recently gotten her much-deserved props for being a trailblazer of art rock. Hip-hop, not so much, but Wiz Khalifa’s super-chill “The Statement” gets some good mileage out of Ono’s weepy, classical-tinged “Beautiful Boys.” Given Yoko’s sometimes puzzling history of protecting her late husband’s art, it’s hard to imagine what she’d have to say about a deeply personal ode to her family being turned into an introspective weed anthem. If her Twitter account is any indication, though, it would probably be baffling but poetic.

Shaquille O’Neal samples Phil Collins

OK, so it’s not like sampling “In the Air Tonight” is especially noteworthy. Dozens of producers have fallen under the sway of those irresistible percussion licks over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, the odd triple feature of Phil Collins, Shaquille O’Neal and special guest Bobby Brown on 1996’s “Edge of Night” is bizarre enough to merit a mention. It would easily rank as Collins’ weirdest public threeway if Mike Tyson and Zach Galifinakis hadn’t come along 13 years later.

The Top Four Musical Comebacks of 2031

Robert Frost may have been correct that nothing gold can stay, but most of those gilded goods make their way back into circulation if you wait around long enough. That’s certainly the case in the music industry, where yesterday’s obsolete technology is today’s must-have hipster accessory, and half-remembered rockers resurrect 20-year old albums for lucrative summer tours. So which of today’s passé musical movements will get a second life in the 2030s? It’s impossible to predict, but that’s never stopped us from trying.

Compact Discs

Musical media never really die. They just hibernate and wait for nostalgia and hipsterism to run their courses. On the other side of the coin, even the hottest trend is just a temporary thing by definition. Sure, right now ideas like music clouds, 100% digital libraries and on-demand song services are intoxicatingly enticing. Once the novelty of it all wears off, though, all this space-age stuff will quickly become the new normal, and everybody knows that normal is boring.

As the mainstream embraces total musical mobility, the next generation of hipsters is going to fall in love with tangible objects. While the return of CDs probably won’t be as widespread as the vinyl record resurgence of the ‘00s, it will be at least comparable to the current cassette tape revival: a largely inferior technology resurrected by the formidable duo of nostalgia and irony. The utilitarian, portable nature of CDs makes them especially ripe for a comeback. The art school undergrads of 2032 will sport ostentatious Discmans on the train and host CD-only basement dance parties. It will likely be just as obnoxious as it sounds.


Commercial radio seems more and more redundant every day. These days most folks carry extensive music libraries in their pockets. There are dozens of online services that can tailor playlists to suit your exact personal preferences and introduce you to new artists who are right in your wheelhouse. With all of that at our disposal, the idea of sitting down to an hour of preprogrammed, corporate-mandated robo-playlists broken up by eight-minute blocks of screeching advertisements seems quaint at best, masochistic at worst. The Clear Channel model of radio appears destined to collapse under its own predictability in the very near future.

That doesn’t mean radio is done for, though. It just needs to return to its roots. Tom Petty summed up a generation’s worth of radio nostalgia when he sang about “the last DJ who plays what he wants to play and says what he wants to say.” When commercial radio is on the ropes in the coming years, look for a return of the idea of disc jockeying as a skilled position. Even in an era when everyone has the power to program a playlist while waiting for the bus, there’s something to be said for letting a true professional do the work. Look for the future of mainstream radio to take a cue from the college and independent stations that have been embarrassing it for the past couple of decades. Employing hosts with strong personalities, good taste and, most importantly, a little creative freedom just might ensure that broadcast radio is still a thing in 20 years.


Music writers have been penning obituaries for the full-length album pretty much since the day iTunes first went online. The long list of supposed killers includes the rise of ring-tone culture, the ease of buying a single MP3 online and the general shortening of our collective attention span. Somehow, albums continue to soldier on, but their omnipresence does seem to be on a precipitous decline. The full LP will never disappear completely, but the next generation of music buyers will likely no longer think of it as the default format for exploring an artist’s work.

Give it a decade or two, though, and we’ll see a return to prestige for the album. Anyone who’s listened to a “one-hit wonders weekend” on the local oldies station should be able to see why. There has always been a place for performers who can craft great singles. Produce enough of them and you’ll have no problem striking it rich. But if you don’t have at least one classic album under your belt, you’ll never command the respect of the critics, the industry or the historians. Cultural shift or none, sooner or later, the pop star of tomorrow will have to demonstrate some long-form skills or risk being derisively labeled a “singles artist.” Although it’s possible that those superficial labels will lose their power in the coming era. We all know what a well-adjusted, ego-free lot professional musicians are, right?

The Black Eyed Peas

If ever you’re bedeviled by the ubiquitous presence of an artist you truly loathe, it helps to remember that few things are more fragile than a pop culture cache. Today’s inescapable chart-topper is tomorrow’s county fair headliner and the next day’s Jay Leno punch line. There are exceptions, of course – did anyone think in 1998 that Britney Spears would still be a viable presence in American music thirteen years later? – but generally speaking the best way to kill off an earworm is to just wait a few months.

That should be a comfort to the myriad music fans who currently seethe at the very mention of The Black Eyed Peas. Yes, the band has had a string of imbecilic successes. Yes, Fergie and Will.I.Am have been elevated to positions of prominence that far outstrip their modest talents. Yes, “I Gotta Feeling” has a catchiness-to-annoyance ratio that could attract the attention of Amnesty International. All of that aside, the band’s mojo can’t last forever. We’ll be rid of them soon enough.

Except for their inevitable rediscovery by future generations of schlock merchants. Some of us remember when ABBA was just that cheesy bunch of Scandinavians who did that lame-ass “Dancing Queen” song. But shellac them with 20 years’ worth of camp value and ironic appreciation, and they become “the legendary hit-makers and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers who inspired “Mama Mia”!” Be sure to relish the inevitable Black Eyed Peas break-up while it lasts, music fans, because you won’t have long to wait before you’re watching Fergie pick up her Lifetime Achievement Grammy on the way to the Broadway opening of “Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Good Night.”

David Fiske in 20 Polaroids

  1. One afternoon I called up my friend David. When he answered I began reading him Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School.” Once I reached the end of the story, I promptly hung up. We discussed the story the next day at work. No further explanation of the phone call was required.


  1. When I was living in Chicago and David in Massachusetts, he sent me a package containing, among other things, a Polaroid of himself sporting a pair of large, fake breasts under a tasteful white blouse. That picture hung on one of my kitchen cabinets for years afterward.


  1. Sunday mornings at the coffee shop were reliably slow, so David and I passed the time by cutting things out of the Sunday Times-Picayune and decorating the store with visual non-sequiturs. On each biscotti jar, for instance, we pasted a single panel from the comics section. My favorite was one of David’s selections, Curtis from Curtis gazing in mute horror as his father danced The Robot.


  1. One evening the power went out in our neighborhood of New Orleans. Myra and I weren’t sleepy yet, so we called David to see if the lights were on in his apartment. We spent the evening drinking bourbon, watching Cheaters and critiquing the published poetry of Thurston Moore. It turned out to be one of my favorite Wednesdays.


  1. My professors in the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago frequently stressed the importance of having a reliable “first reader” for one’s unpolished prose. I decided that David should be mine. For a couple of years I sent him everything I wrote that I was at all proud of. He wrote back promptly every time, usually with praise but sometimes with much-needed criticism. He once told me he thought he was falling in love with the teenage girl at the heart of my novel-in-progress. That was one of the best things anyone has ever said about my writing. I later named the main street in my fictional small town after him.


  1. On particularly maddening days at the coffee shop, David and I attempted to kill customers using only the power of our minds. We never mastered it.


  1. David had told me about his problems with sleepwalking, but I hadn’t witnessed it until one night when he was visiting me in Chicago. I woke up around 2 a.m. to the sound of David rummaging through my bedroom closet. When I asked what he was doing, he calmly reassured me, saying softly, “No, it’s OK. It’s me, Dave.” I eventually got him to leave the closet and head back to the couch. He remembered none of it in the morning.


  1. When David mentioned an upcoming trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I remembered that my friend Matt, who lived there, had asked me for a mix CD. David agreed to make the delivery. He strolled stone-faced into the movie theater where Matt worked and handed him the unlabeled CD, then walked out without saying a word. Matt was completely baffled by the encounter until I called him and explained it all a few weeks later.


  1. On a sand bar somewhere on the Bogue Chitto River, David and I and our friends Roan and William squared off, charging at each other with inner tubes wedged around our waists. I don’t recall who won, but obviously there are no losers in a situation like that.


  1. David and I had an ongoing debate about men’s room etiquette. It began after he took one of the middle urinals in a four-urinal movie theater bathroom. A gentleman was already using the one on the far end, so I sidled in to the one alongside David. He held that I should have just waited so as to avoid awkwardness. My argument was that I would have left the standard courtesy gap had the other urinal not been occupied, but the laws of supply and demand ultimately trump social niceties.


  1. Some friends once invited Myra and me on a Honduras-to-Chicago road trip. On our way out of San Antonio, we somehow talked our hosts into making a detour through New Orleans so we could see our old friends Roan and Kristina. David was just getting back to the States after a trip to Egypt with his parents, so we assumed we’d miss him on this visit. As it turned out, David sped from Florida to New Orleans just so he could chat with us on a street corner for half an hour before we had to hit the road. Duly impressed, Myra and I hopped into our Scion the day after we got to Chicago and drove back down to New Orleans to surprise David with a return visit.


  1. Man and dogI collaborated with David on half of an absurdist play. We wrote it in the coffee shop’s log book during our down time. The only scene I remember involved a parade of clichéd American icons, including Marilyn Monroe riding Marlon Brando like a horse. David objected to me calling Marilyn Monroe a cliché. He really liked Marilyn Monroe.


  1. David was the first person I ever met who could match me NewsRadio quote for NewsRadio quote. If there’s a surer recipe for gaining my immediate respect, I don’t know it.


  1. When a music writing gig landed me an advance copy of Cat Power’s masterwork You Are Free, the first thing I did was drive to the coffee shop to show David. His envious, appreciative reaction was extremely validating. A month or so later David and Myra and I saw Cat Power play at the Howlin’ Wolf. It was one of the worst live performances any of us had seen. Myra fell asleep on her feet in the front row. I think David and I both learned something unfortunate about artistic heroes that night.


  1. There exists a photograph of David and me wearing a single, very large pair of men’s blue jeans, one of us in either leg.


  1. David and I regularly exchanged CDs, each trying to win the other one over to our personal favorite artists. I got him into Crooked Fingers, Bill Withers and Magnetic Fields. He got me into M. Ward, Mitch Hedberg and The Postal Service. I never convinced him about Lou Reed and he never convinced me about Bill Hicks.


  1. In David’s apartment after Katrina, he and I watched the debut of the New Orleans-set cop drama K-Ville. We decided that we would take a shot every time the show shoehorned in a gratuitous New Orleans stereotype. By the time Anthony Anderson got around to extolling the virtues of eating po’ boys for breakfast, we were pretty well in the bag.


  1. The night before we left New Orleans to move to Chicago, Myra and I had a bunch of our friends over for a last meal at Ninja Sushi and some drinks amidst our boxed-up worldly belongings. We doled out goodbyes at the end of the evening, with all the usual handshakes and hugs and half-teary well-wishes. When I came to David, he wrapped his arms around me and hugged me with all his might. At first I thought he was just being over the top, playing it for a laugh, but when he kept on squeezing I realized this was every inch a heartfelt, emotional farewell. I hugged him back hard, my heart splintering a little bit as I did.


  1. After David died last month, his parents sent me some things of his that they thought I’d appreciate. One of those items was a lovely, mahogany-toned lamp that had accompanied David on all of his far-flung travels. (In the decade or so that I knew him he’d lived in New Orleans, Massachusetts, Amsterdam and Chicago, and he and his parents had traveled to most corners of the globe.) The lamp is by my bedside now, on the nightstand behind the alarm clock, in a spot where I’ll be sure to see it every morning.


  1. There was a time when my next course of action would have been to send this list to David for his analysis. Even though we’d fallen out of that practice in recent years, I’ve been thinking I might want to start it up again. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but god damn it, what does? So long, Dave. I’d say I miss you, but that doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Welcome to the machines

Originally posted on Rob Duffer’s marvelous fatherhood blog Experiments in ManhoodAugust 14, 2011.

The machines arrive each morning before seven. Their cacophony of beeps, clanks and belches is the first thing I hear upon waking. In the next room, my son Selby hears them too. I imagine he feels a tiny ripple of anticipation every day as the cobwebs clear and the sounds begin to take shape in his head. At 19 months, patience is far from his greatest virtue, but in this case he seems to have made peace with waiting. He knows he’ll be with the machines soon.

Selby is a city kid. More than a year and a half into this fatherhood bit, I still can’t quite get my head around that. I grew up in the woods. Not on a farm or in some rural subdivision, but in the middle of the deep dark forest in the hilly country of Western Wisconsin. My family’s nearest neighbors lived nearly a mile away across a corn field. Our only bathroom was a wooden outhouse handcrafted by my father. Our rare visitors had to maneuver a quarter-mile of rutted driveway interrupted by a fast-flowing creek at the midway point.

My son, in contrast, can hear the crackling speaker of the Wendy’s drive-thru from his backyard. He negotiates city buses as easily as any grizzled urban warrior. And his favorite form of daily entertainment is watching the machines. We live half a block off of University Avenue, the future site of Saint Paul’s much-anticipated light rail line. Nearly every day, I take my son by the hand and walk him up to the corner to watch men in yellow helmets tear up a major metropolitan thoroughfare using equipment half the size of our house. A few years from now, they’ll have built a state of the art rapid transit system that stops just outside our door. My son is absolutely enthralled by this, and why shouldn’t he be?

Watching him watch things is one of my greatest joys. The focus he puts on these earth-movers and hole-diggers is so intense that I suspect he could operate one from memory if he only had the size and strength. I can recall being similarly rapt when I was a kid, but it was the relative nothingness of sumac groves and babbling brooks that held me in thrall. Selby drinks in what Petula Clark called “the rhythm of the traffic in the city,” unfazed by churning traffic and passing vagrants. These are just the ambient noise of his everyday existence. I love to see it, but it also makes me uneasy.

Even though I’ve lived in cities for years, I’ve think of myself as a country boy at heart. When you’re raised on grassy pastures, starry nights and unbroken solitude, it’s hard to throw it over completely for the city. My wife Myra is in a similar situation, coming from a sleepy town of barely 1,000 people. For us, the Big City was a destination, a far-off place full of wonder and danger. For the boy we’re raising, small towns and farmscapes will be the exotic outposts. Will he dread visits to his grandparents’ homes, where the nights are silent and there’s no Target right up the street? Will he dismiss country folk as backwards yokels? Will he gag melodramatically every time we drive past a manure-coated cornfield?

I surely hope not, but as with most things, only time will tell. Maybe someday Myra and I will relent in our determination to be city folk for life and trade in culture and convenience for small-town stability. But for now, all I can do is offer Selby my halting guidance through an urban jungle I can barely navigate myself. And keep watching the machines.

The Lesser Works of Janusz Kaminski

Toward the end of my grad school experience, I was approached about an assistant editorship with Reservoir, a new, student-written publication designed to showcase the vibrant community of Columbia College Chicago. The following year I was promoted to Managing Editor and given an opportunity to mold the magazine into something cool, quirky and unique to that singular university. In a classic cliche, Reservoir folded after its third year under pressure from uptight administrators. I’d moved on by then, but I was still mighty sad to see it go. Here’s a piece I originally published in Reservoir Magazine, February 21, 2007.

With the Academy Awards just around the corner, Reservoir would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the work of Columbia College’s Oscar-winningest alum. That would be on Janusz Kaminski, a 1987 graduate who has been Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer since 1991. Kaminski won Best Cinematography Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and his epic vision has colored everything from the dystopian prisonscapes of “Minority Report” to the slick office antics of “Jerry Maguire” to the lush river voyage of “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” Kaminski returns to the alma mater this May, when he receives an honorary doctorate of humane letters at Columbia’s commencement ceremony.

Not to diminish Kaminski’s achievements, but it’s easier to do great work when you’re given great material to work with. The true test of an artist’s ingenuity comes when he or she is tasked with sprucing up the subpar. Janusz Kaminski’s camera work has more than once been the only grace note in an otherwise forgettable production. Treat yourself to a showcase of Kaminski’s minor works as a reminder that even the best of us have bills — and dues — to pay.

“Grim Prairie Tales” (1990)
You don’t see a whole lot of Western/horror movies, and this flick is a pretty good illustration of why. It’s one of those no-budget scare anthologies with sort-of-famous actors collecting paychecks in none-too-demanding parts that sometimes turn up on shows like “Svengoolie” (See also: “Creepshow,” “Merlin’s Shop of Wonders,” “Tales from the Hood”). Here it’s former Oscar nominees James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif hamming it up as wayfaring Westerners swapping tales of moderate terror. Look for lots of flickering campfire shots from Kaminski.

“Pyrates” (1991)
This out-of-print Gen X obscurity is most notable as the first big-screen pairing of real-life spouses Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. They play a star-crossed couple whose sexual encounters are so hot, they literally start fires each time they make love. No, seriously — that’s the actual plot. The early ’90s were a weirder time than they get credit for. This bizarre flick does have a bit of a cult following, probably due in part to Kaminski’s creative framing of those incendiary couplings.

“Little Giants” (1994)
Nowadays, a kiddie sports flick starring Ed O’Neill and Rick Moranis doesn’t sound that appealing, but in 1994? OK, it didn’t sound so great back then either. Perhaps the best thing to come out of “Little Giants” was Roger Ebert’s savagely vitriolic one-star review, in which he condemned the film as “a perfectly-honed retread of every other movie about how a team of losers wins the big game” that would make viewers “bitterly resent the fate that drew them into the theater.” For Kaminski’s part, he was saddled with the unenviable task of making guest star John Madden look photogenic.

“How to Make an American Quilt” (1995)
With a needlepoint-heavy plot and a cast including Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Jean Simmons, Alfre Woodard and a slew of other esteemed women of the theater, this quintessential girls’ night movie seems to have been conceived with an eye toward endless repeats on the Lifetime network. The acting is uneven and the storyline frustratingly slight, but Kaminski’s eye is put to good use in lustrous shots of Americana. Unfortunately, even the most flattering camera angles can’t make Winona Ryder appear more expressive than your average block of wood.

“Cool As Ice” (1991)
That’s right — Kaminski is one of the lucky few who got a ringside seat for the ultimate early ’90s ego-driven train wreck. Intended as the launching pad for Vanilla Ice’s film career, this debacle instead hastened his journey toward becoming a national punch line. Still, imagine the thrill of being on the scene when the Ice Man first delivered immortal lines like “I’m gonna go across the street and, uh, schling a schlong” and “Drop that zero and get with the hero!” Awards be damned, it’s moments like those that make a career in the arts all worthwhile.

Remembering Bill Rose, a better man than most

“I’m not much for small talk.”

That’s the first thing I remember Bill Rose ever saying to me. He was my wife’s only living uncle, so of course I’d met him before, but this was the first time we’d been placed in intimate contact.  We were seated together at a kitchen table in suburban Houston, left to our own devices while my wife Myra helped her cousin Greg – Bill’s son – prepare dinner.

I suppose I could have interpreted Bill’s “small talk” comment as an insult, sort of a “Don’t even bother making the effort, junior,” but I took it in the spirit in which it was intended: a preemptive apology for the forthcoming lack of frivolous chit-chat. It was a relief, honestly. Bill was a clean-cut, 80-something WWII vet and former construction foreman from Chicago. I was a shaggy, 24-year-old New Orleanian barista with dreams of making it big as a fiction writer. I had been panicking about what common topics we could possibly have to discuss.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I’m really not much for small talk either.”

And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Within the next year, Myra and I would wind up living half a block from Bill and his wife Julie in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. When I was accepted into the Fiction Writing MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, Myra asked her Aunt Steph for advice on finding a good place to rent. Instead of passing us off to a rental agent, Steph lived up to her Polish-American focus on the family and had her long-vacant upstairs apartment renovated for us. Suddenly I was deep within the bosom of my in-laws, for better or for worse.

I attribute a lot of that “better” directly to Bill. Early on in our Chicago tenure, Myra established a weekly tradition of strolling up the block to spend a few hours commiserating with Bill and Julie. We’d sit in their living room, sip weak Folger’s coffee and chat while half-watching TV. We sat through an eclectic blend of programming – local news, Keeping Up Appearances, Dancing with the Stars, Cubs and Sox games (although Bill was a Cardinals fan) – but the defining show of our visits was Antiques Roadshow. Watching regular folks unearthing relics from the darkened crannies of American history proved to be a perfect conversation starter. While Julie regaled Myra with family stories, Bill and I maintained a running commentary, swapping opinions on the assorted antiques and hazy historical nuggets from our own experiences.

Our TV-bonding soon blossomed into a deeper connection. Bill was as quick-witted as anyone I knew, but years of physical labor had rendered him incapable of any activity more strenuous than a slow trudge around the block. I could and did roam about the city with impunity, but our sleepy little corner of the Northwest Side was populated almost entirely by old folks and families. Seeing as neither Bill nor I had much of an immediate peer group, we latched on to each other as not just uncle- and nephew-in-law, but as legitimate friends. We were also united by being non-Polish, non-Catholic men who married into a family that placed great stock in both of those attributes.

I suppose it should be an odd thing, making friends with a man nearly four times one’s own age, but it came easily and naturally with Bill. It helped that he was one of the most genuinely decent human beings I ever met. I’ve often heard people of my generation write off people of Bill’s generation as being stuck, through no real fault of their own, in antiquated mindsets where bigotry and Puritanism were just the accepted norm. While I’m sure that’s true in many cases, Bill was the very model of live-and-let-live tolerance. Whenever a provocative news story got emotions flaring in the living room, he remained conspicuously silent. He didn’t know anybody’s whole story except his own, he reasoned, so it was hardly his place to pass judgment on anyone else. The only people against whom I ever heard Bill say a negative word were Mayor Daley and Ronald Reagan, and c’mon – those are freebies if ever there were.

Eventually I came to realize that Myra and I were sort of Bill’s window to the world. As I said, he didn’t get out much, and that frustrated the hell out of him. His wife Julie was remarkably active for her age, regularly taking long walks around the neighborhood and attending yoga classes at the local rec center. He had a strong, loving relationship with his son Greg, but Greg lived in Texas and could only make it home five or six times a year. If he couldn’t get out to see the world, I figured it was the least we could do to bring some of the world to him.

I don’t want to say we had some kind of “Tuesdays with Morrie” thing going on. Bill was far too much of a taciturn old schooler for that kind of emotional bonding. We were more like hangout buddies. After a while I started dropping by to visit even if Myra was out of town. Bill would offer me a coffee or a beer (usually Old Style or Miller, and always in a can), he’d hand me the newest Chicago Sun-Times and we’d settle into our usual positions, he in the lounge chair he felt was a little too plush, me on the left edge of the uncomfortable davenport that had maintained its position since the ‘60s. I’d work the crossword puzzles while we chatted about all manner of things: the week’s non-events in our sleepy little corner of Chicago, Bill’s childhood in the fantastically named southern Illinois hamlet of Cave-in-Rock, the St. Louis heyday of Paul and Dizzy Dean and other ephemera. His recall was amazing. He seemed to have a near-photographic command over the details of not just his own life, but also of the world around him.

That acute awareness could be a curse as well as a blessing. One evening when Myra and Julie were cutting some pound cake in the kitchen, Bill turned to me and said with a chilling matter-of-factness, “Ira, it’s hell being old.” Bill was in most respects a simple, humble man, but he also had a lot of pride. His greatest fear was being a burden on those around him. He absolutely hated that the ravages of age had robbed him of many of his youthful abilities and he’d be damned if he was going to be forced into the role of doddering old man without a fight. He refused to eat in front of other people because he felt his ill-fitting dentures made the process too unsightly. He would not allow me to get away with mowing his lawn unless I accepted a 20-dollar bill for my efforts. He apologized profusely any time he had to ask for my help, even on the several occasions when Myra and I drove him to the hospital with various ailments.

Despite his protests, I always knew Bill and Julie appreciated having us nearby, and the feeling was more than mutual. That made our eventual decision to move away from Chicago all the more wrenching. We were going to miss the hell out of Myra’s family and all of our friends, certainly, but we knew they’d all be able to cope without us. We weren’t so sure about Bill and Julie.

The last thing I did on my last day in Chicago (Myra had moved up to Minneapolis a few weeks earlier to start her job while I finished out mine) was visit Bill and Julie. The conversation that night was grimly awkward. I tried to maintain my game face, talking brightly about how we’d be down to visit all the time and how everything was going to work out fine. Bill nodded along with my spiel, but he wasn’t buying it anymore than I was selling it. He and I sat down at the kitchen counter and shared a mostly silent meal of Polish sausage and steamed cabbage. We kept the small talk to a minimum just like we had at our first communal meal, but this time the reasons were different. I managed to hold it together through the goodnight routine, this time capped off with brief hugs from both Bill and Julie. I made it about a hundred feet up the sidewalk before I gave in to the tears. By the time I staggered back into my now-empty upstairs apartment, I was doubled over in full-body, soul-shaking sobs that wouldn’t subside for another hour.

Four years, one month and seven days later, Bill died. That was yesterday. It had been a long time coming. His health had been in varying stages of failing for most of the previous decade. Most everyone who knew him believed he was tired of fighting and ready to embrace some well-earned peace. In that respect, I’m relieved, even happy for him. In another respect, I’m devastated that I’ll never again sit down to drink weak coffee and watch Antiques Roadshow with one of the best friends I ever had.

Goodnight, Uncle Bill.

Goodbye, my dear, sweet friend.

The Boy Who Named the Trees

Here’s a little slice of my childhood. It was originally published in the Winter 2006 edition of No Touching, the creative nonfiction journal (currently on an extended hiatus) that I co-founded with the delightful Molly Each.

I am the boy who named the trees.

I did it when I was four or five, before I went off to kindergarten. Those were my peak verbalization years. I was an inquisitive kid with an expansive vocabulary, and I talked a lot to anybody who would listen. Unfortunately, there were not a lot of anybodys out in our neck of the woods. Dad went to work. Mom spent most of the day in the vegetable garden. She usually kept my brother Levi by her side, which didn’t make a lot of difference because he was too little to talk with anyway. My closest agemate lived half a mile away and I wouldn’t meet him until we were old enough for school. We had two dogs, but Phoebe was short-tempered and Gerda was incredibly stupid, even to a five year old. I tried making up some imaginary friends, but I didn’t quite get the idea that I had to make them do things in order for the relationship to blossom. I just sat back and waited for the imaginary people to entertain me and was sadly disappointed.

And so I talked to the trees. Years later, as a grown-up, I read an Annie Proulx story that ended with the line, “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” I was good at that, making my own fun. I had learned from Sesame Street that everything has a name. I had also learned that in nature some things are alive and some things are not alive. Trees were alive. They were also immobile, which made them better candidates for lasting friendship than the various bugs and toads I caught. Yes, the trees would be my friends, and they would need to have names. And not just species names. I knew most of those – birch, spruce, cedar, etc. – thanks to my mom’s unflagging love of horticulture, but those names were so impersonal. They referred to all trees of the same type not only on our land, but all over the world. If I wanted these trees to be my friends, I needed to give them individual monikers to show them that I cared.

The first tree to get a name was Big Bart, the massive cottonwood between the shed and the house. Bart had to be first, because he was so obviously the captain of the trees. He was just the biggest tree you could hope for, at least in westernWisconsin. Sixty-odd feet tall, eight feet in diameter, rough grey bark, lofty branches that would make good sized trees themselves: if there was such a thing as tree porn, Big Bart would be a surefire centerfold. When Bart shed his cotton-esque seeds in the fall they coated the ground like an early September snowfall. He had a similarly impressive cousin out in the pasture, Big Bruce, but I never established the same rapport with wild trees as I had with the domesticated ones in our yard. I loved Bart, but it was that odd combination of love and fear usually reserved for benevolent authority figures, so we remained more acquaintances than friends.

Three-heads was much more benign. Three-heads was technically two, or possibly three, different box elder trees that had grown together at the base, with two distinct trunks sprouting off at obtuse angles. The larger trunk forked off again about six feet up, thus providing the third head. Box elders are generally sort of a nuisance tree, with their dull, ugly bark and those irritating, ground-littering seed pods we kids used to call helicopters, because of the way they twirled to the ground. Three-heads, however, was far from a nuisance. His visibility from both the house and garden made him the perfect playpen from my parents’ perspective. My dad hung my tire swing from one of Three-heads’ lower branches and I whiled away many an hour drifting back and forth in that swing with a stack of Chip N’ Dale comic books. When we were a bit older, Levi and I nailed an old ice cream bucket to Three-heads’ largest trunk and played one-on-one hoops with a Koosh ball. Three-heads was our own home entertainment system and, as such, the only box elder I ever graced with a name.

A little ways down the gentle slope from the house, near the fence line dividing the yard from the pasture, stood a grove of three walnut trees, rising tall and black and strong above their runtier brethren. Walnuts were another nuisance on the land. They cropped up everywhere and emitted toxins from their roots that killed off any more desirable would-be neighboring species. They cluttered the ground with their obnoxious fruit. In the spring, the big green walnuts made crossing the yard akin to walking across a golf driving range with longer grass. In late summer, the outer casings rotted away to an unpleasantly textured black slime that was impossible to get out of clothing. In the fall the outer shells were exposed and they became nasty, sharp-edged obstacles that would carve up a bare foot just like broken glass. Still, I admired the stately trio of walnuts enough to deem them nameworthy. I must have also deemed them somewhat comical, as I dubbed them Wilma, Fred and Barney (Apologies to Betty Rubble, but there were only three trees).

I was not on friendly terms with every tree in the yard. There were a few whose angry visages set me to whimpering. My chief adversary was Scarface, a tough, mid-sized walnut who lived along the north fence line separating us from Jim Kowitz’s cornfield. Scarface had been gnarled irreparably by several strands of barbed wire that bit into his trunk unforgivingly. The disfigurement was more than I could bear. I turned my head and hummed to myself every time I walked past, hoping to avoid eye contact with the horrid creature. In later years, I came to feel sorry for poor Scarface. I realized he was a misunderstood monster, like Frankenstein’s creature, and that the scars were not his fault at all. My mother, incidentally, has told me she was mildly concerned that I named a tree after a movie I should certainly never have heard of at that age. I have no idea where the name came from. Perhaps one of my cartoon shows did a parody, or maybe PBS ran the old Paul Muni movie one morning when I was unsupervised.

I do know where my other nemesis, Bruce Banner, got his handle, though exactly why I decided to name a twisty, scary oak tree after the Incredible Hulk’s alter ego is a mystery to me. Maybe it was because the tree looked relatively harmless in the summer months, its true nature cloaked by layers of leaves. Once the seasons changed, however, Bruce Banner was transformed into a frightening behemoth, all pointy limbs and severe angles. I’m not certain why this particular tree’s nudity affected me more than any other’s, but I suspect I drew a connection between Bruce Banner and those angry trees in The Wizard of Oz who threw apples at Dorothy. So much trauma stemming from that film.

My little brother swears to this day that I used to wander around the yard talking to the trees. This is simply not true. I’ll admit I regarded them as friends, but I knew full well that tree friends are different from human friends. We had a relationship based more on recognition than communication, and that worked just fine for both parties. That might sound odd, but I could point to any number of married couples who operate on the same principle.

I don’t want to read too much into it, but tree naming might have been a key contributor to my development as a storyteller. Even if I didn’t establish an actual narrative for each tree’s life, I was starting to build worlds of my own. I was toying with the early stages of personification and teaching myself untold lessons about human personality. The surprising power of that original vision is evident not only in the fact that I remember so many of my old friends in such vivid detail, but also that my parents to this day refer to all of “my” trees by my given names. While I appreciate the resonance, I have been embarrassed on more than one occasion when friends visiting from a more urban setting have inquired about the identity of this “Three-heads” my mother keeps referring to. I have learned that the most dignified approach is to simply smile politely and explain quietly that they’ll have to bear with my mother, as she’s gone a little bit crazy.

Interview with Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers

Originally posted on MadeLoud,  November 3, 2008.

In the not-so-distant past, getting signed by a label was a primary goal for most up and coming bands. Like so many aspects of the music business, that ambition has changed in this internet age.

Not only are unsigned bands finding more and more non-label routes to distribution, now even some established artists are stepping away from the traditional label system.

Crooked Fingers front man Eric Bachmann is one of these artists. Bachmann has recorded with some of the most recognizable indie labels around. Earlier Crooked Fingers albums have been released by Merge and WARM, and Bachmann’s 2006 solo album To the Races was handled by Saddle Creek. His previous group, the seminal alt-rock band Archers of Loaf, once turned down a potentially lucrative contract with Warner Brothers-owned Maverick Records to remain one of the flagship artists on the much smaller Alias label.

Two decades on the indie rock circuit have earned Bachmann a devoted cult following and strong working relationships with some of the most respected small labels in the business. Still, he opted to self-releaseCrooked Fingers’ new album Forfeit/Fortune, distributing CDs online, at shows, and in a select few record stores around the country. What inspired Bachmann to take the road less traveled? “It certainly wasn’t the behavior of the labels I’ve been on,” he explains. “They’re great.” But when his manager suggested recording the album without a contract and then shopping it to labels, Bachmann had another thought. “I just hinted at him, ‘Well, I’ve never done this before. I would kind of like to do our own label.’”

After crunching some numbers, the self-release was deemed feasible, but with a few catches. “He says, ‘If we do that, print advertising, old formats, that’s out the window. We can’t afford to do that shit.” The band’s initial decision was to release Forfeit/Fortune as a download-only album, with a short run of vinyl pressings for hardcore fans. Bachmann soon decided he didn’t like the idea of not having a physical CD available, so the plan was modified to include limited distribution at select, independent record stores, with downloads available at iTunes and the Crooked Fingers website.

This unorthodox model has worked reasonably well for Crooked Fingers thus far, especially in the online department. “At this point we’ve sold way more downloads on our website than on iTunes,” Bachmann says. “The whole point is to get all of the 10,000 or so people who buy the record to our website, versus having to find it all over the place.” To that end, they also pressed a deluxe edition CD featuring a concert DVD and a bonus track guest-starring Neko Case to be sold only at shows and via the website.

The record store situation has been a bit more delicate, largely due to the laws of supply and demand. The group hired a marketing company to assist in getting Forfeit/Fortune onto shelves, But Bachmann says there have still been some bumps in the road. “What you inevitably, unintentionally do is, you give your record to this record store, but there’s another cool one in town that you don’t give it to and they get pissed off. We’ll sell it to them, but it’s more of an effort than receiving it from ADA or Red Eye or some distributor… but we’re doing it exclusively with independents. We don’t touch the big stores like Best Buy. Best Buy and those places don’t give a shit about selling our records.”

Bachmann does worry that this new approach and its attendant lack of publicity is making it tougher for fans to find the new release. “If you’re Radiohead and you say, ‘We’re gonna do it online,’ everybody knows about it. If you’re a small little pissant like me, nobody gives a shit. Even the 10,000 fans we have, a significant number of them don’t know it’s out yet… The toughest part is not having a label to help you promote it, especially something like Merge or Saddle Creek, where they sort of have a built-in audience. I’m sure everybody that likes Merge Records doesn’t like Crooked Fingers, but they at least know there’s a new Crooked Fingersrecord out… That’s why I tour and do press. I’m going out in January; I’m going out in April with Neko Case, just touring like crazy. Sort of doing it real old-fashioned.”

Crooked Fingers’ current tour schedule keeps the band on the road for nearly seven months straight, variously opening for Okkervil River and Neko Case and headlining sets with The Ugly Jacket and Black Joe Louis and the Honeybears. Bachmann says he would like to have booked even more live sets, but the realities of the road wouldn’t allow it. “We were gonna do a bunch of in-store [performances]. It’s designed well for this type of situation, where we’re dealing with specific independent retailers. They would love to have me come in and do in-stores, but we can’t do it when the drive is six hours or more. If we want to do an in-store at three or four in the afternoon, but we have to leave from a city that’s seven hours away after going to bed at five in the morning, we won’t sleep.” He’s currently thinking of setting up yet another small tour that will focus mainly on those in-store appearances.

Bachmann is the first to admit that this tenuous attempt at self-sufficiency might not be sustainable in the long run, but he’s taking a wait-and-see approach for the time being. “It’s an experiment. It may not work, and if it doesn’t work, we still have the label we just started. We can maybe get a distribution deal.” Nonetheless, it’s a fairly risky proposition for a well-established band. But in music as in life, Bachmann has never been keen on settling into a rut.

“People’s expectations are wrong,” he says. “They want you to be something consistently. They want to go cracker barrel. Not necessarily my fans, but people in general. So when you make an album that’s weird or unfamiliar, if it’s produced differently or you sing differently, you lose people. And maybe you should, I don’t know. I’m not saying that I know how to do it. But I do know that I don’t want to repeat myself.”

Little House in the Big Woods

Here’s a little slice of my childhood. It was originally published in the Winter 2008 edition of No Touching, the creative nonfiction journal (currently on an extended hiatus) that I co-founded with the splendid Molly Each.

To answer your first question, the smell really isn’t that bad. Or maybe you just get used to it. I guess I really couldn’t tell you, since I never knew anything different. To tell the truth, the spiders concerned me a hell of a lot more than the smell, but then I’ve never dealt well with arachnids. Otherwise, the only major obstacles were distance, temperature and poor upkeep. Except for those elements, growing up with an outhouse was no big deal.

A lot of people hear the word “outhouse” and immediately assume “hillbilly.” One childhood classmate even asked me in all seriousness if I was Amish. I pointed out my Hawaiian shirt and Velcro shoes – I was one of the cool kids, obviously – and asked if they looked Amish to him. The fact was, my parents were neither rednecks nor religious rebels; they were just a couple of hippies with a dream of solitude.

Actually, my mother would bristle to hear herself described as a hippie. In her book, hippies were pretentious and lazy. She and my dad were just a couple of counterculturalists who’d had enough of the hustle and bustle of Minneapolis and wanted to stake a claim of their own. Around the time they became aware of my impending arrival, they started hunting around the upper Midwestfor a plot of land that was large, cheap and rural. They found it in the two-hundred acres outside of Sparta, Wisconsinowned by Elwood and Evelyn Kast (Elwood and Evelyn, now they were hillbillies, as evidenced by Elwood’s cause of death, namely being crushed under a tree chopped down by his brother Barney). My folks bought the land in early 1978 and moved on down in the summer of ’79, seven month-old me in tow.

It was gorgeous property – acres of former cropland gone to pasture, low canopies of birch and oak, crystal clear springs and creeks bubbling out of the ground, a high ridge overlooking the cornfields of Lyons Valley – all the accoutrements your discriminating hippie could ask for. The only problem was housing. Evelyn and Elwood had been living in an uninhabitable frame house for God knows how many years, and that was torn down before we moved in. The only other structures on the property were a crumbling horse barn, a tiny, defunct pump house/tool shed and a two-story grain barn. The latter being in the best condition, my dad and a rotating cast of relatives set to fixing it up into a habitable domain. In the intervening months we slept in a big blue tent in the pasture, curious dairy cows tottering around outside our lodging.

By the time of the first frost work was more or less completed on the main house, and the workers had sunk a well about a hundred feet down the hill and constructed a “bath house” (so dubbed before the term became synonymous with sexually transmitted disease) where we could draw drinking water and, wonder of wonders, take hot showers, doubtless a huge step up from bathing in the creek as was our previous tradition. Unfortunately, funds were running low at that point, and my dad’s chimney sweep’s salary couldn’t fund a septic system just yet. And so it was that we rolled into the 1980s defecating out of doors.

The outhouse was a simple enough structure, but the design was rather ingenious. A permanent outbuilding intended for everyday use has to be a little sturdier than those plastic port-a-johns you see at outdoor festivals and construction sites. To start with, our building straddled a very deep hole, since it couldn’t be pumped out once weekly like those mass-produced models. The walls and roof were made from two-by-fours nailed together to create a cozy little shack about eight by four by four, painted the same odd peach-tan as the bath house (it must have been the cheapest option at the hardware store). There was a hinged door complete with a latch for privacy (no traditional crescent moon cut-out in the door, as my dad felt that to be tacky and, in winter months, impractical). The floor and the base of the seat – the “throne” portion – were concrete poured from the leftovers from the house renovation. The seat itself was made from more slotted two-by-fours, with a strategically shaped hole cut out in the middle. There was a closable lid that stayed open most of the time, and at the back of the seat, a makeshift wooden “ventilation shaft” leading to the outdoors. Throw in several small screen windows, a ten-gallon bucket of crushed limestone for deodorizing and a few Sunday comic strips taped to the walls and brother, you’ve got yourself an outhouse.

I don’t know when exactly I became conscious that not having an indoor toilet was a bit of an oddity, but I do recall a rush of embarrassment when a friend told me, “I can always tell when you peed in our bathroom, ‘cause you never flush.” It had never occurred to me before, but I really didn’t know how to use a regular bathroom. Sure, I’d been using them all my life, at school, at church, at other people’s houses, but bathroom time is solitary time, so no one ever taught me the intricacies of flushing and washing and all of those processes normal people took for granted. I was utterly mortified by my friend’s accusation and thereafter took to flushing every time I entered a bathroom, whether I’d used it or not. (I feel I must mention here that I am now fully versed in the proper usage of indoor plumbing and I would ask that any of you who might by chance encounter me in a restroom not feel compelled to edge away from me. Unless I give you other reason to do so. Which I very well might.)

When the shoe was on the other foot, my playmates made no secret of their fascination with my unique bathroom lifestyle. Kids visiting the Brooker estate for the first time would usually ask excitedly to go see the outhouse within a few minutes of their arrival. I would dutifully lead them across the lawn and down the hill, about a hundred yards from the house, and invite them to try it out. Few were brave enough to actually take me up on the offer but they all peered inside, in awe of the primitive savagery I called home. And those were the farm kids, kids who were used to seeing nature in all its ugly glory. The rare visitor who lived in town, or worse yet, the big city, was generally rendered near catatonic.

There were always questions, of course, and I had my answers down pat. No, we didn’t have to go running down the hill every time we needed to pee. We usually just stepped outside for that, or, in the dead of winter, kept an empty ice cream bucket in the house for late night emergencies.

Yes, we still used the outhouse in the winter (did they think we just ceased bowel movements for four months?) and yes, it was very cold. Sometimes there’d be frost on the seat and you’d sort of have to lower yourself down slowly, letting the heat from your buttocks melt it away before you settled in. In the winter it was often advisable to hold it in until you went to school, church, Wal-Mart or some other heated environment.

Yes, the hole would eventually fill up, at which point my dad would dig another hole next to the outhouse and set to the unpleasant task of transferring the contents of the original hole into the new hole. I never actually witnessed this process – Dad did it while my brother and I were at school, as I can imagine it’s the type of thing you’d prefer to do alone – but I can testify from my days of lawn mowing that the grass forever after grew much faster over the site of the second hole than in the rest of the yard.

It’s tough to explain to someone who grew up toileted, but the outhouse was more than just a pit stop for a quick excretion. Its easily climbable walls doubled as a jungle gym for my little brother and me. Perched atop the tarpaper roof, we turned our humble biffy into the flight deck of the Millennium Falcon, or Lex Luthor’s secret lair. It was also a sort of fortress of solitude for a bookish kid like me. Oftentimes I’d hang around well after my business was done, finishing up a chapter in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or polishing off the latest Jughead Jones Double Digest. That kind of seclusion became all the more precious when I hit my adolescent years. My dad had designed the renovated house as kind of an open living space, with no interior doors to denote individual rooms. This left very few options for a hormonally charged youth to “discover himself” in private. The outhouse, on the other hand, was physically removed from the house and even had a lockable door. The presence of an aging People magazine featuring a pictorial profile of Madonna was just an added bonus.

But time marches on, all things must pass and all that jazz. When I was a junior in high school, my parents finally decided to take the plunge and take out a home repair loan to thoroughly overhaul the house. For six months we moved into a crummy rental place in town while my dad and various work crews more or less started rebuilding the place from scratch. When we returned to the countryside, the grain shed had been replaced by a lovely, totally modern dwelling with all the comforts of the twenty-first century, including running water and a septic system. As of that day, the outhouse was obsolete.

It was probably just as well, as the old facilities had taken quite a beating over the years. It had been toppled in several windstorms, so the walls were far from plumb. The door had fallen off at some point and never replaced. Using it in the rain had become an exceedingly soggy process, and for the last few winters snow drifts had been finding their way through the door. It was a change, we all had to admit that, but there were few tears shed for the passing of the outhouse.

We never did tear it down, my folks preferring to keep it as a sort of reminder of their first sixteen hardscrabble years on the land. Occasionally on my visits home, I like to wander down the path and reflect awhile on a childhood that necessitated my leaving the house at least once every day. Moving on is for the best, I understand that, but it’s still a rather melancholy feeling to see that little piece of who I am fading into memory. I linger awhile before deciding to resist the urge to duck in and give it one last spin. The power of nostalgia only goes so far.

Interview with Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead

Bill Griffith has been one of my artistic heroes since I was a teenager. I’ve been fortunate enough to interact with him several times. I’ve contributed photos for use in his daily Zippy the Pinhead comic strip, which earned me several of his coveted “Tips o’ th’ pin.” I’ve also interviewing him a couple of times, the most substantial being this lengthy conversation that was originally published in the wonderful but now-defunct arts journal The Drama.

Bill Grffith is the best kind of rebel, the kind who aggravates the system from within. The Levittown, New York-born cartoonist somehow managed to shift his surreal, socially aware comic strip Zippy the Pinhead from the underground comix scene to America’s funny pages in the mid-1980s, much to the chagrin of Marmaduke fans nationwide. Griffith’s nonsense-spouting, muu-muu-sporting, taco sauce-slurping lead character quickly gained enough cult icon status to ensure himself a place in shady corners of our national consciousness for the next two decades. Ira Brooker spoke with Griffith recently about Zippy’s twentieth year of syndication, the difficulties of being the smartest strip in the room, and the importance of getting collateral before lending anything to the Ramones.

 How do you explain the longevity of such an unorthodox strip?
Totally my own perseverance, encouraged by my tiny but elite cult following. A lot of people are encouraged by money or success. I’m just encouraged by the occasional fan letter or e-mail, so I know somebody’s still reading it, and King Features is still paying me, so I keep doing it. I’m just grateful for the whole thing because it’s really what I feel most comfortable doing.

So you still hear from fans regularly?
Oh yeah. I have plenty of interaction with fans. Enough to make me feel I’m connecting with enough people. It’s actually much more than it used to be because of e-mail and the Zippy website. I remember when I first started the website a friend of mine asked, “How many fan letters do you get a week?” and I said about five or ten. He said, “You’ll get that per day if you go online,” and he was right.

Do you also get a good volume of detractors?
Surprisingly few, although they do happen. At this point I think it depends whether Zippy has been suddenly introduced to somebody’s newspaper. They might have a violent spasm of hatred, but that doesn’t happen too often. I think the people who were initially angered by it or didn’t get it wrote to me a while ago and then kind of faded away. Although I do get the occasional hate mail. Sometimes it’s specifically directed at… if I’ve offended somebody’s political viewpoint.

Like the trip to Cuba?
Yeah, that and whenever I do something anti-Bush or Cheney, making fun of them, I usually get somebody writing something outraged about how politics doesn’t belong on the comics page. “Get over it, you dumb liberal. Get over the fact that you lost,” things like that. But my strip is not usually political in the obvious way, so that doesn’t happen a whole lot. The guy that does “This Modern World,” Dan Perkins, he gets big doses of that every day. My more common hate mail is something along the lines of… I’m accused of doing a dumb strip. Stupid and dumb and unfunny. I once asked Garry Trudeau, when he gets hate mail what’s the typical complaint. He said, “Dumb, stupid and unfunny.” Those are things that it makes the people feel who don’t get it: dumb and stupid. They know there’s humor but they can’t find it. And I have to kind of agree. You can accuse me of not being funny, but to accuse Zippy of being stupid I think has to reflect more of a frustration with the strip than anything justifiable. What I should be getting is hate mail saying, “It’s an elitist strip aimed at very few people. What nerve do you have doing this and ignoring millions of readers who appreciate humor on a more Garfieldian level?” But I never get those. After a while you realize those people are satisfied with what they have and the other ones who don’t like it are reading it almost by accident. They shouldn’t be reading it, in other words. Their eyes should be passing over the Zippy part of their comics page. But they have to read every strip on the page and then they get annoyed because the punch line didn’t happen.

Well, there is a tendency to read it just because it’s there. I’ve never stopped reading “Rose Is Rose,” even though it drives me crazy every time. How would you say public reaction has changed since 1986, when Zippy was first hitting people’s breakfast tables?
Well, I had a lot of reaction from people who had read Zippy in his underground comix incarnations and were sort of blown away by the fact that it was in a daily newspaper. They were happy, but they didn’t get it. How did this happen? How did Zippy go from an obscure underground publication to the Washington Post? It’s a question I’ve asked myself a few times and I can’t really explain it either.

Were you accused of selling out?
I’ve had a sprinkling over the years. People who say Zippy has changed in a way they weren’t thrilled with. They liked him more insane and chaotic. Very early Zippy was a loose cannon. Today Zippy’s character has kind of adjusted to the amount of satire I want to inject into the strip. He has conversations. Even though they’re circuitous and not point A to point B, his attention span has lengthened over the years so that he can actually carry on a conversation. In 1972 there was no hope of a conversation. If he encountered a person or an object, there would be a series of non-sequitors that he would shout and then run away or have a reaction that was seemingly inappropriate to the stimulus. Now he doesn’t have a normal reaction, but he bounces off what other people are saying, whether it’s the roadside attractions that he’s prone to talking to or the cast of characters of the strip. I don’t think any strip doesn’t change if you do it for as long as I have. It evolves. I suppose in some cases it freezes or stultifies, but I’ve tried to make it something that works for me. What I wanted to do in the beginning of Zippy is not what I want to do now.

It seems pretty natural that the strip should mature, especially since you’ve had a surrogate of yourself as one of the characters for so long. Has the Griffy character reflected your own artistic maturation?
Yeah, having Griffy as the foil, sort of the straight man, for Zippy, made a huge difference. I think that started around 1980 or so. It’s a way of putting myself into the strip more or less unfiltered. Every cartoonist’s cast of characters represents facets of themselves, that’s kind of a given. But when you actually put yourself as a character into the strip, you’re allowing yourself to be more direct about it. It kind of allows me the freedom of letting the other characters go their own ways too. If your characters are all based on aspects of you in a steady, consistent way, that could be a little boring. Making one character be me lets the other characters be… I mean, they’re me in the sense that I’m putting words into their mouths, but I’m trying more to channel them than use them as a sounding board for my own thoughts. When I do Claude Funston, I kind of find that part of me that feels a connection to the redneck male from Oklahoma City. And I think that’s an essential part of satire, to feel some sort of affection for your target. Otherwise it just comes across as mean-spirited.

One of my favorite things you’ve done is your “Cast of Characters” story. In that one you directly addressed all the psychological aspects of your characters as they related to you. That story always struck me as one of the more honest things I’ve seen in a comic book. You really seemed to pull no punches against your own psyche.
Right, and they started talking back to me. I still occasionally do a strip where Mr. Toad gets out of control and comes at me in some way I can’t quite handle.

You mentioned the early craziness of Zippy, when he was more grounded in actual microcephalic style behavior…
Yeah, Zippy was inspired first and primarily by the Schlitzie character in the movie Freaks. I found out about five years ago that Schlitzie went on to live into his late seventies and last was performing in a sideshow in Hawaii. He was alive when I was doing Zippy. He died in about 1978. The original Zippy, the way he looked and to some degree the way he spoke, was based on what little I could understand of Schlitzie’s dialogue in the movie, which was not scripted, of course. Years and years ago a friend of mine had a 16-millimeter print of the film. We slowed down the film including the soundtrack and I could actually understand some of the dialogue. It was surrealistic and random, as you would expect. But it was very emotional, as if you were verbalizing your emotions without content. Just words as emotion. It’s hard to explain… But I was fascinated with that whole way of life. I met a microcephalic right around the same time, in a situation where I was able to talk to him for about fifteen minutes. He was very verbal. He processed the input that was thrown at him very quickly. When I met him he had just seen the TV news, so he was talking about the news as if it was real and it was happening to him.

So there is a level of comprehension?
Well, there are all different degrees. I was in a situation where I was surrounded by seven or eight microcephalic patients in a mental institution in Oakland, California. They were impossible to understand. They had that Schlitzie quality of just sort of yelling and giggling, a lot of them just grabbing whenever I tried to tape record them and take pictures. They took my tape recorder and ran away with it. I had to basically escape. I had a friend who was a nurse there and she’d said they’d be happy to talk to me, but it was a disaster. Anyway, the original Zippy was based on how I interpreted the way a microcephalic thinks, as far as I can figure out. I was interested in the poetry of the way they spoke, the emotional directness that they exhibited. But you know, someone once reviewed Zippy, in an early review I read – it wasn’t really a negative review, but it said Zippy was best in small doses because it was like being stuck in an elevator with a crazy person who wouldn’t stop talking. It was about that time that I started bringing Griffy into the strip.

So you think that big cast of characters is part of what’s made the strip so long-lived, that people would get tired of a daily dose of Zippy alone?
Right. My abortive attempts at making a movie and a TV series over the years, that was always a big thing we tried to do, to keep Zippy as the main character but not always the main focus. In live action it was even more important that Zippy’s peculiar way of seeing the world be doled out in not just small doses, but doses that made the story move along, that made him seem like the unwitting protagonist, because he couldn’t really be a traditional protagonist.

At some point in the ‘80s there really was major studio interest in a Zippy movie.
Starting about ’84 and going through the early ‘90s, Zippy was optioned by several places at different times. Brandon Tartikoff, the NBC programming genius, was doing his dance to try to make a movie through NBC Productions, their film division. That went on for a number of years. He himself talked to Michael Richards and got him interested in playing Zippy. Then he left NBC and went to Paramount. After he was at Paramount he gave a press conference where he was asked what to expect, and he mentioned Zippy. It got a lot of play in the press, but more or less as an indication that Brandon Tartikoff must be crazy. He was made fun of for mentioning Zippy, even though he was trying to do it in a humorous way, couching it in a certain context. But the fact that he said the words “Zippy the Pinhead” – probably just the word pinhead itself – made it this weird buzz that was not appreciated by the rest of the studio execs. I remember him telling me shortly after that that he had to make one blockbuster James Bond movie before he could do Zippy. And then shortly after that he had a recurrence of a fatal illness and he died. He was our biggest ally, but we had others. Like Steve Martin’s manager, Bill McKuen. He produced The Jerk, also produced the first Pee Wee Herman movie…

Seems like a good fit.
He was a big player in Hollywood. But we also got him at a point in his career where he would get very inappropriately angry at meetings. He actually lunged across the table during a meeting at Warner Brothers to choke the person we were meeting with. He’d decided the guy we were meeting with was so low on the totem pole that it was an insult. The guy made some comment that you could interpret as insulting but wasn’t necessarily, and he leaped across the table and grabbed the guy. That was not a good meeting. But [McKuen] took out a full two-page ad in Variety to try to encourage interest, he was really into it for a few years.

That’s kind of amazing to me. I don’t know if the Hollywood structure has just changed so much so recently, but a Zippy project seems like such a risky endeavor that I couldn’t picture big studios being interested in it now.
No, although if I had played the cards the way they wanted me to… One of our early meetings was with Mike Medavoy at Orion, and he said he needed a Christmas comedy and he saw Robin Williams as Zippy. At that point, I had Randy Quaid as my choice. He said Robin Williams and something like – and this was in the ‘80s – a ten, twelve million-dollar budget. I said, “I know Robin Williams, and he’s a fan, but he specifically told me once he wasn’t interested in being Zippy.” And Medavoy said, “That’s my job, to get him interested.” I told him I’d really prefer Randy Quaid and a much lower budget. We were out in the parking lot pretty quickly after that. But if I’d said yes to all those things, who knows? Dennis O’Brien of Handmade Films, which was George Harrison’s production company, flew from London to speak to me, and once again had I played the cards he wanted me to play, it probably would have happened. He actually wanted Zippy’s muumuu to be replaced by normal clothing. He said, “We really love Zippy, George loves Zippy, but we see the muumuu as a problem. Is he a cross-dresser? What’s going on with the muumuu? How do you feel about Zippy in a tank top and jeans?” And of course I just went home and did a strip about Zippy in a tank top and jeans. Had I said yes to that, I don’t know. And then the TV show got really close to being made. We had three scripts ready and Showtime was signed on. Then we had the dreaded change of executive. Our champion at Showtime left and we got a phone call saying it had taken too long to get into production. I’m better off, I think, not having done it. I got loads of material out of the whole thing, lots of strips, lots of stories for parties and interviews. That was probably the real value. The world is better off, as well as me.

It could have been interesting, though. Michael Richards as Zippy sounds like a pretty perfect choice.
He was really into it. Although I’ve heard a lot about how difficult he is to work with.

I can imagine. Right now, with the resurgent interest in all the ‘70s underground work – “American Splendor,” the R. Crumb movie – are you finding that people are rediscovering your early work, or have people come to regard you more as a newspaper cartoonist?
I have noticed the rediscovery phenomenon happening, although I think there’s a real separation in my audience between people who are aware that I’ve done years of work pre-newspaper strips and people who have no awareness of that. My website has actually shown that people who are going there to peruse the archives, if they look through the website they’ll quickly see that, oh, there’s a lot of other stuff besides the daily strip. I’ll get letters from someone who says, “I want to check out Arcade, I never knew about Arcade.”

There’s a lot of your older stuff that isn’t readily available, right?
Well, some is and some isn’t. Most of it isn’t. But I was one of those people who’d save large amounts. I’d keep a whole box of my early comics. Not just three issues in a plastic bag, but a hundred. So I’m actually selling a certain amount of those on my website, just because I saved huge amounts of it.

I’d wondered where those stores of t-shirts were coming from…
Yeah, most of those are from stashes I’ve kept. I have the right to keep those in print on my own. When I went to King Features I made a deal that said whatever previous merchandising deals I had would be allowed. Any old merchandising I’d done I could keep doing on my own.

Even back in the ‘70s when it was more anarchic and free form, a lot of your work was more esoteric than most of what people were seeing in the underground field, like, say, “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” or even the “Zap Comics” stuff.
I wasn’t one of the underground cartoonists who reinforced the counterculture stereotypes of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. I was off in my own sphere, as I am today. If certain people want to come along and see what I’m doing, great. If not, I’ll keep doing it anyway.

So would you say that put you in sort of a niche group at the time?
Well, yeah, I think. [Art] Spiegelman and I first started doing “Short Order Comics” together, which morphed later in “Arcade” and various other things we did together as editors. We and Justin Green, Kim Deitch, a few other people, we kind of thought of ourselves as having an affinity that didn’t quite fit the mold that people expected from underground comix. Robert Crumb also in many ways wasn’t giving the fans what they wanted, but he was giving them such a large dose of raw talent and facts that they got enough. They got what they wanted out of him, but he was always giving it to them begrudgingly. I remember when Robert first met me he was afraid I’d give him a hippie handshake. I went to shake his hand and he said, “It’s not gonna be a hippie handshake, is it?” I said, “No, don’t worry, I don’t do that handshake.” [laughing] I have a picture of all the cartoonists in Arcade in front of the Print Mint [in San Francisco] in 1975, and Robert has a tie on. Cliques had already begun to form in the San Francisco scene in the early and mid-‘70s. Rip-Off Press had the more drug-oriented comics, the trippy stuff. Last Gasp was trying to be more political. Then there were the more E.C. science fiction derived cartoonists.

It seems like your little group had more staying power than a lot of the more visible stuff of the time.
I guess the price that you pay for being in touch with the zeitgeist is that your bubble bursts quicker. Some people go on to do other things, some people that was it, they peaked at that point.

A lot of it seems so specifically tied to the times.
Yeah, reading a lot the stereotypical, Classic Underground Comix of the 1970s, you can’t not feel like you’re in a time machine. But that’s not really true when you read some of it. Like Justin Green. Justin Green is timeless, always has been.

Zippy was kind of an icon during the rise of the Southern California punk scene, right?
Yeah, I would get a lot of attention from people in that field. Also from the Ramones. I remember one time in the early years of the Ramones, they were playing in San Francisco, and they had an over-the-head Zippy the Pinhead mask, it might have been made out of latex or something, and they had lost it. They called me in the hopes – not in the hopes, actually, on the assumption – that I would just have one. And I didn’t, I just had a regular mask that I had made myself, a Halloween mask. They said, “That’s good enough, we can use it for tonight.” And some roadie came over to my house and took it and I never saw it again. [laughing] I actually did a strip for Rhino Records when they were doing Weird Tales of the Ramones. The liner notes for that boxed set are in comic book form. Everybody was asked to do comics about the Ramones, so I have Zippy directly interacting with the Ramones.

That seems fairly natural. Aren’t you also friendly with Fred Schneider of the B-52s?
Yes, that connection came through The Manhattan Transfer, the singing group, actually. In the early ‘80s I got a letter or a phone call from Janice Siegel of The Manhattan Transfer saying they were big Zippy fans and they had a lot of free time on their hands because their European tour was cancelled. I think it was the year Reagan invaded Libya, and Khadaffi was attacked, and suddenly there was the fear of hijacking and reprisal. So apparently a lot of tours were cancelled that summer. Janice told me that she and a bunch of other people – Phoebe Snow and John Hendrix and Fred Schneider of the B-52s – were just hanging around for a month or so with nothing to do and they wanted to do a Zippy theme song, and what did I think and did I have any ideas? I thought about doing the lyrics, but then I thought no, let’s just see what happens. Because my lyrics would be totally uncommercial. I thought, I dunno, maybe this could be my chance for airplay. [laughter] So Fred Schneider did the lyrics and Janice was the lead singer, Phoebe was backup, John  Hendrix did scat, various other musicians came. They did a totally professional theme song. I have it as a souvenir. That’s where Fred and I connected. We communicated and whenever he’d come to San Francisco I’d have a few free tickets waiting for me. So I saw all the B-52s performances in San Francisco for many years. Madonna also did that for a while. Madonna was a Zippy fan.

Through her publicist, she would send me free tickets whenever she came to the city. It impressed my thirteen-year-old niece to no end.

I never would have anticipated that.
In her tour book of one of her concerts, she said, you know, favorite color and all, and favorite comic strip: “Zippy the Pinhead.” I never had any personal contact with her, though.

You’ve said you structure a lot of the strips around jazz riffs, at least in your recent work. Has that always been the case?
I think that’s always been the case. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s something that… I kind of noticed it and I thought it was an analogy that might help some people understand what I’m doing. That when Zippy speaks, to some degree, he’s playing his instrument. He’s riffing. He’s improvising. In the middle of a jazz conversation, each instrument will have its solo to play with the melody or deconstruct it or whatever they want to do with it. I think that analogy helps me, and maybe it helps some other people get what I’m doing.

Who are you into, jazz-wise?
Well, the old jazz, the stuff that Crumb introduced me to. When I first met him, I was kind of aware of it, but I didn’t have a huge taste for it. Early pre-swing jazz is the big seat of pleasure for me to listen to. In terms of Zippy, the correlations are more Charlie Parker-ish, Miles Davis-ish. I remember trying to talk to Crumb once about Charlie Parker and the conversation just died in a second. But it’s early be-bop especially. Not Sun-Ra, not crazy experimental atonal jazz, but just that kind of free-form be-bop jazz.

People regularly make the accusation that Zippy is obscure for obscurity’s sake, but I don’t think there’s any other strip that makes as regular reference to mass entertainment and pop culture either.
Some newspapers actually put Zippy on the TV and entertainment page. I thought that was appropriate. Zippy is my coping mechanism for the bombardment of pop culture that I seem to be unable to fend off. Not only unable to fend off, but have a need to pay attention to and monitor and absorb, and either be amused by or outraged by or whatever. Zippy’s reaction is always like a sponge. He just soaks it up. And then, of course, Griffy comes in with an analytical approach. That’s my way of saying, you know, pop culture is both something to be enjoyed and also something to be looked at as a mirror of society. A way to understand culture. I feel both. I feel something inside me – I think this is probably true of everybody, to a degree – likes and hates something at the same time, or appreciates and is repulsed by something at the same time. And I don’t think that’s usually recognized. I think one of the things that makes my strip hard to get for some people is that I deal in ambiguity. I like ambiguity. I don’t take a hard position on things. And Zippy is kind of a vehicle for not taking a hard position. Zippy listens to hip-hop and it’s just more stuff to listen to and react to and ultimately enjoy. And me, it puts me off. That’s just me. But when I’m doing my strip, I can allow that part of me that won’t admit I kind of enjoy it too to do that. So Zippy is my vehicle. If that works for me, maybe it works for the reader too.


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