Sunday, November 20, 2011

Two versions of Joel Beck's Odalisque

Joel Beck self-portrait (1987)

The cartoonist Joel Beck (1943-1999) was one of the founders of underground comics, having created Lenny of Laredo in 1965, followed by Marching Marvin and The Profit. In 1962, he was in New York, staying in Larry Ivie’s apartment, but Larry was out of town one week. In the Lower East Side, the Charles Theater on Avenue B was a neighborhood movie theater dating back to 1926. It became a focal point for underground films in the early 1960s because it ran Filmmaker’s Night once a week. I had been contacting filmmakers such as Ed Emshwiller and suggesting they bring in their 16mm films. I knew that Larry Ivie had been running around Central Park in a Superman costume for a short movie starring himself as Superman.

I spoke to Joel on the phone and told him to bring Larry’s film to the Charles. Joel was very reluctant to do this and said, “The splices are all Scotch tape.” Finally I talked him into it, and he turned up that evening with the film. When Walter Langsford, who owned the Charles, saw the Scotch tape splices, he was fearful of running it through the projector and did not put it on the program. However, later that night, after the audience had left, Langsford took the film up to the projection booth. I sat with Joel, Tom and a few others as we watched Larry’s film on the giant theater screen. The special effects involved a plastic Superman toy sliding down a wire attached to a tree. I can’t remember if Joel ever told Larry about the clandestine screening, but I somehow doubt it.

Tom Conroy picks up the story:

by Tom Conroy

I was the one who bought that plastic airplane in a toy store and rigged it all up with the pulleys so it would fly. I hooked it up with a string and it flew over one of the small coves of the Central Park Lake with rocks in the background while Larry filmed it. It was a seaplane with pontoons, and it had a cardboard cut out of Superman taped on one of the wings. It worked great and we only did one shot. I think it looked as good as anything Sam Katzman did. I remember jumping around on the rocks to set it all up, and Larry asked me if I would dress up in tights so I could star in his John Carter of Mars film. Bhob, Joel and I stood out there on Avenue B and laughed about it for at least an hour.

A little bit about Joel Beck when he came to NYC in 1962. This was my first year of doing my “beatnik thing”, so we would hang out all night long in Greenwich Village. Joel really liked the beat scene. and we both did a lot of artwork for some of the coffee houses. I still have a menu that he drew for the Cafe Wha on MacDougal Street. So one day I’m at Larry Ivie’s pad, and Joel was getting dressed so he could take his art portfolio around to the magazines hoping to get work. He had a suit jacket, vest, white shirt and a necktie, and he had them all pinned together with safety pins. These four items were now one solid piece all pinned together. He laid them on the bed with the necktie facing down, and then he crawled into them like a snake slithering into a rabbit hole. His arms went into the sleeves first, and then his head popped out at the top. He flipped over and sat up, buttoned the collar and tucked in the shirt tails, and he was now dressed. It was an amazing thing to see. “Well… I’m ready to go into the big city”. Joel considered Madison Avenue the “big city”. God made only one Joel Beck, and after that he threw away the mold.

Joel got kicked out of school when he was about 10 or 11 years old. Being a artist he was using the walls of the boys’ bathroom as his canvas. He was doing drawings of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Daisy fucking. They let him back into school when he promised to not do any more artwork on school property.

When Roger Brand (1943-1985) and Joel were in high school they were “teenage drunks”. Joel had a car, and they did a lot of driving and drinking. I can’t even remember some of the stories he told me. Where did they get the booze? Was it from their dad? It seems even as a kid the booze was always a part of his life.

A story Roger told me about him and Joel when they were still in high school: Joel is going to pick up his girlfriend Carol Verlinden for a date. It is night time, and Roger hides in the back seat of the car. He lies down on the floor so that he can’t be seen. Joel picks up Carol, and they are cruising along, and Joel reaches his right arm around and puts it on Carol’s right shoulder. He squeezes her shoulder for a little bit and then drops his hand behind the seat and taps Roger. Roger then lifts his hand up and puts it on Carol’s shoulder. Joel then brings his hand back around and puts it on the steering wheel. He is now driving with both hands on the wheel, and Roger is squeezing Carol’s shoulder. After a block or two, it dawns on Carol that Joel now has three hands, and she flips out. This is why I liked these two guys. Their brains operated at a different frequency than most people.

This is another story Roger told me. It is the early 1960s, and he and Joel are at a beer bash in Berkeley. It gets loud so someone calls the cops. The police give Roger and Joel a quick pat down and put them in the back of a police car. At this time Joel had this huge Jerry Lee Lewis pompadour hairdo. They had some Dexadrine pills on them and didn’t know what to do with them. Joel takes the pills and starts sticking them in his hair. When the cops get them and the other partygoers to the police station they strip search everybody and throw them all into this big jail cell. Joel sits down and starts shaking out his hair. The pills all land on the floor. They pass out the pills to their friends, and everyone sits there all night stoned on speed. The cops let them go the next day.

This is the early years… 1963-64. Through some strange chain of events, Roger and Joel ended up living in a garage. You know, like where you keep your car in the suburbs. Of course, there was no toilet. They had this huge vase that they used as a urinal. It was about four or five feet tall. Thin at the top and round at the bottom like a turnip. When they needed to take a leak they would climb up on a footstool and pee into the vase.

Knowing how much drinking they were doing, they probably were doing a lot of pissing. Somebody ratted them out, so after a while the city served them with an eviction notice. Be out by so and so day. So they call some friends to help them move. On moving day, a cop car is there, and their friends show up with a pick-up truck and another car. The street is lined with all the neighbors watching the event. You know, these are all straight clean-cut citizen types. One of their buddies who is this big strong joke football-type guy picks up the piss vase and carries it out to the street. Roger and Joel start saying to the guy “Easy. Easy. Careful. Watch out. Take it easy”. The guy sets it down on the street. and the bottom breaks out. Now this is on an incline, and the piss starts flowing down the street. All the citizens start gagging and wretching… end of story.

In 1983, I was 40 years old. Carole came to NY to run the photo agency. I hitched out to New Mexico to team up with my friend Milt, who I knew from my old beatnik days. Milt was the guy that Janis Joplin shared an apartment with the first month she was in San Francisco. They were not lovers. Milt and I jumped a freight train that took us into Barstow, California. From there we hitched up to see Roger and also an old friend of Milt’s.
Joel, Tom and Roger
A friend of Carole’s loaned us a car, and we headed over to Point Richmond to find Roger. We went from bar to bar until we found Joel. He made a couple of phone calls, and about ten minutes later Roger showed up. He looked a little worse for wear, but it was really good to see him.

When Joel saw that we had some wheels it was decided that we all would go on a mission. That mission was a trip to Rip Off Press so Joel could deliver some pages of artwork. At this time, Milt and I both had cameras, so I took some photos.

I remember so well the drive across the Bay Bridge and us just doing nothing but laughing and laughing. Roger was funny, but Joel was even funnier. It was a great trip. When Joel was outside of Point Richmond he was like a fish out of water, so we headed back. We dropped him off and came back into town with Roger and stayed at Carole’s pad with her brother. The next day we’re driving around, and a cop pulled Milt over for an “illegal lane change”. He searches the car and checks our ID and finds out that Roger has an arrest warrant for “failure to appear”. It was for some two-bit thing like jaywalking, open container or farting in an elevator. Roger gets handcuffed and hauled off to jail.

This was one of the few times I was on the road and had a lot of money on me. This was the weekend, and it took a day or two of running around to get Roger bailed out. The fine was $100, which we paid, and they cut him loose. I have never seen Roger more happy than that day when he came walking out of the slammer. We hung out in Point Richmond for a few more days, then headed up to the Russian River to see Milt’s friend. We hung there for awhile and then came back to Point Richmond. Milt really liked being with Roger and Joel. Milt was also a drinker.

Roger knew this old couple that we visited with. They were old beatniks from the 1950s and had great stories to tell about Frisco in the days before me and Milt made the scene. They had a Robert Crumb drawing that was framed and hanging on the wall. They liked underground comics, and Roger was like a guest of honor whenever he stopped in. One of the local bars still had an old faded poster of the nude Daisy Duck painting that Joel had done. He pointed at it and said, “Do you remember that one?” Then he chuckled, “The money I made off that paid my rent for three years”.

About a year earlier, Joel had gotten mugged one night and had his head split open with a lead pipe. He stumbled around town for a few hours before somebody took him to a hospital. Because of the injury, a lot of his memories were a little scrambled. He would talk about stuff we had done when he came to New York in 1962, and he had a lot of stuff mixed up. Also his memories of the time in LA with him and Roger were jumbled. I know it was head injury, not the booze.

I’m not sure who Roger was staying with, but he was homeless. Some chick said she would rent him a room at her place for $40.00 a month, so before we left I gave her the bucks for two months. I sent her money for a couple months after I got back to New York, but I think it was Joel or Paul that called and said she threw him out, so I stopped sending money. Even the sad shape Roger was in, he had not changed. His essence, his inner being was still the same as when he was young. Any time I spent with Roger was a good time, and Joel being there made it even better. Those guys were two of the best people I have ever known. I did the “Live fast and die young” thing for 20 years. I failed at it. Roger succeeded.

                                                                  --Article and photos © 2011 Tom Conroy

Spouts (2010)

Above is a page from the Phil Howe/Joel Beck children's book Spouts, created 20 years ago but finally published last year. For much more about Joel and his artwork, go here. The San Francisco Chronicle ran this Kevin Fagan article about the search for Joel Beck's daughter.

Tom Conroy at a Mojave Desert freight train crossing in 1983.

Since the 1960s, Tom Conroy has run a picture rental agency, Movie Still Archives.

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You guys hobo-trained it to Barstow in 1983? Oddly, I was staying in Barstow in '82 and '83. Sorry I missed meeting you folks. I worked as a DJ at the local radio station (KRXV) there. Barstow was (and still is) a very dull small town. We could have used the excitement.
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