INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
Terry Zwigoff is a filmmaker, mandolinist, and record collector. I recently spoke with him to mark the occasion of the holy Criterion Collection bringing forth into the world new editions of Zwigoff’s first two films, both of which are essential American documentaries.
Louie Bluie (1985) is a profile of multi-instrumentalist string-band musician Howard Armstrong, whose once-used recording pseudonym provides the film’s title. Armstrong—magnetic, ribald, and blindingly talented—makes a great subject. By the time Zwigoff found him, he was an old man living in squalid conditions, far past his early glories but still possessing the sort of verve that very few are blessed with. I’m grateful that this film has been resurrected.
Zwigoff’s second documentary was Crumb (1994). You probably already know it well. It’s an uncomfortably intimate portrait of not just artist Robert Crumb but also his two damaged and brilliant brothers, Max and Charles. By turns hilarious and cripplingly sad, it’s inarguably a classic. This new edition comes complete with deleted scenes, multiple commentary tracks, and a gallery of production stills and Crumb family photos.
Zwigoff lives in San Francisco, and that’s where I called him a couple of weeks ago.
Jesse Pearson: Louie Bluie and Crumb both have roots, to different degrees, in your passion for old music.
Terry Zwigoff: I got into that stuff shortly after moving to San Francisco, around 1970. My cousin lived out here. He was about my age and we’d been friends our whole lives, always living pretty close to each other. He was going out with some girl who was working for, I believe, the Capp Street Community Center. It was a place that would give music lessons to kids at a reduced fee. She told my cousin that they had an annual benefit sale, like a flea market, to raise money and they had just gotten in a big pile of 78s—like several thousand of them. We were allowed to go in there before the general public and look through everything. We were both a little bit interested in old records at the time but still didn’t know much about them. So we dug around. To this day, I remember one of the records we found was this Mack Rhinehart and Brownie Stubblefield on Mellotone that’s probably worth about a thousand bucks.
Yeah, it’s a really rare record. My cousin wound up keeping it. Outside of that, there wasn’t anything that was all that exciting. We didn’t find a pile of Robert Johnsons or anything. But there were some decent records in there. We took home a bunch and listened to those, and that was sort of the beginning of developing our ears. At first it seemed so strange and foreign to us—not the blues stuff, because when you’re growing up you hear things like the Rolling Stones and their version of the blues, songs like “Love in Vain.” But the jazz music that we found… I couldn’t focus on it. It had an overall sound to me that was not very appealing. It even seemed rather silly.
Was this like old New Orleans-style jazz?
Some was, but some of it was more swing. The stuff from the 1920s, which I eventually ended up acquiring a really rabid taste for, seemed very cartoonish. It took me a couple of years to actually sit down and listen to it, especially the acoustic stuff from the earlier 20s, like the first Louis Armstrong record or King Oliver, and really listen to what was going on, like, “What’s the phrasing this guy has going here? What is the arrangement? Why is this good?” Eventually, I started to put things together. So at first, I wasn’t that hip to it, but now I’m absolutely certain it’s some of the greatest music ever made.
It became a huge part of your life.
Early on, I remember having people come over to my house, see my collection, and say, “Oh, what are these records?” And I’d say, “I’ll play you one,” and I’d put on, like, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” or “Once in a While” by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five—which were always two of my favorite sides by him—and they’d just sit there and you could see in their eyes that they were just waiting for the thing to be over. They couldn’t take it in. They couldn’t quite focus on or process it.
And yet your first film is very much about an important figure who made this type of music.
Well, by the time I made Louie Bluie, I’d been listening to and playing mandolin and ragtime for years and it seemed to me that maybe people would like the film and find it funny and entertaining and finally find the music good. I always thought it was a great film, and I was always excited about it. When I was trying to get it into film festivals, I’d think, “People are just going to go crazy for this!” [laughs] But the truth sort of struck me after maybe 12 people would show up at a festival screening and they’d be bored, and most of them would walk out.
I can’t understand that. I could watch hours of your Howard Armstrong footage.
He was winning enough as a personality, and the critics were certainly kind to it. But it never found an audience. It played for maybe a week in each major city.
The Criterion Collection seems like a really good venue for it.
Thank God they came along, because there wasn’t even going to be a film in another couple of years. The actual stock itself was disintegrating. I’d assumed that this stuff called safety film never had any problems like that.
It would seem to be inherent in the name.
Yeah, right. [laughs] Thank you, Kodak. And apparently Fuji and all those film stocks are printed on the same acetate base.
Didn’t Martin Scorsese undertake a rescue project on a lot of films that were disintegrating?
I don’t know. But I sent him a copy of Crumb recently—a 35-mm print for his archive. I had an extra. Now that Criterion is doing this and preserving it, I had a couple of prints still here and I figured, well, I don’t need three. I might as well spread them out.
There are not many better people to give a print of one of your films to.
He’s a good guy. I’ve only met him once, but I’ve corresponded with him and he’s always lent me impossibly rare films. You ever see this film Two Weeks in Another Town by Vincente Minnelli?
It’s unbelievably great, and it’s so surreal and bizarre. There’s nothing like it. It’s got Edward G. Robinson as a tortured film director who’s tossing and turning in bed, doubting his own production. Kirk Douglas is in it too. It’s sort of a companion film to The Bad and the Beautiful, but I like it much better.
Oh man, now I really want to see it.
Hopefully someday someone will get it out. But yeah, I love Criterion and a lot of the old films they’ve done and I thought, “What better place to be?” I was flattered to death that they asked to do these.
You made Louie Bluie because you came across this strange record by Howard Armstrong and you wanted to find the guy who was behind it.
That’s pretty much it. But it wasn’t only hearing the record that made it take on a certain mystique to me. It’s also that I discovered that I owned one of only two copies of it. That’s very odd for just about any record. You can find, you know, 30 copies of every Blind Lemon Jefferson record or Robert Johnson record. So it took on some extra importance because of that rarity. And I was somewhat obsessed with the thing because I’d been trying to learn the song. I didn’t want to wear my record out, so I taped it and then slowed down the recording. And I learned all the notes, but it just didn’t sound like anything when I played it because Armstrong had this incredible virtuosity—a dazzling technique that’s really hard to imitate. I see guys on YouTube who do the song and it’s like, yeah, well, you might as well be typing on a typewriter because you’re not making any music.
So I wanted to track down any information that I could about the guy so that I could write a little article for a British music magazine called Old Time Music. It had been around for about 20 years and ran articles by record collectors. A typical piece would be a photo from the 1920s of the musician, and then his discography and a little bio. That’s what I intended to do, and I assumed this guy Louie Bluie was already dead. But then I did the detective work, tracked him down, and found him still alive in Detroit. When I met him, I was like, “Somebody’s got to do a film on this guy.”
And you didn’t yet have any experience whatsoever in filmmaking.
When I woke up on the first day of shooting, I was so totally out of my mind with panic that I was vomiting. I was like, “Jesus, OK, this is a tripod here, and this is what film looks like. Now where do I point the camera and how long do I let it run and when do I change the angle?” I didn’t know anything about cutaways or coverage. I filmed for about a week and when I ran out of my life savings, I came back to San Francisco. I had two friends who were established documentary filmmakers who had agreed to help me. We processed the footage and one of them, Vickie, became the editor. I would go through the footage with her and she would say, “You know, it really would have helped here if you’d got a cutaway of this guy listening to him talk.” So I raised some more money, went back, and continued shooting.
I was surprised, when I listened to the commentary on the Crumb DVD, that some of the situations in it were sort of engineered by you. The whole thing feels so natural.
You have to stage some things just to get them going.
Like, for instance, Louie Bluie opens with a shot of Armstrong shaving. That’s strangely intimate. But maybe it was easy to ask because you weren’t a total stranger to him, or to Crumb.
I was really old friends with Crumb, of course. We were best friends since 1972, and by the time I started that film, I knew a lot about him. I knew the entire story. I’d met his father, I’d met his brothers, I collected their artwork… I knew what to look for. My problem in Crumb was figuring out a way to artfully and invisibly get this information into a film and arrange it. There were a lot of things that he’d done that he probably thought were much more interesting than what I was choosing to film. In Howard Armstrong’s case, the thing that helped me the most was to sit down for three days with him and a tape recorder and just let it run and start to get an oral history. “Where were you born? What was your father like? Where did he work?” And he peppered this oral history with a lot of the anecdotes you hear in the film. He had a set group of maybe 24 stories that he had told thousands of times—
Albeit really good ones.
Oh yeah, like the joke he tells about the woodpecker who pecked because his pecker was hard. So I got those on tape, and then that helped me when I was shooting. I’d be thinking, like, “What else can I do with his sister-in-law? They played this gospel tune that was really nice, but the rest of the conversation around the piano is so awkward. Let’s get him outside to take a walk with her.” And then I would take Howard aside and say, “Hey…”
“Hey, Howard, tell her that dirty story…”
Yeah, about the woodpecker. [laughs] So I did that sometimes. And it was sort of odd at first, because it was so artificial. My whole approach to the film, initially, was going to be to stay in his apartment and make it about the minutiae of his daily life.
Like the Fred Wiseman version of Howard Armstrong.
Yeah. And I thought that would be pretty great because he was living this really bleak existence in this horrible housing project in Detroit. Even in the 70s when I was there, it was like a war zone in Beirut. And he had a very distinctive apartment. He had decorated it with all his wall hangings and paintings. His routine was generally to wake up in the morning and turn on some crappy game show like The Price Is Right on his nine-inch black-and-white TV while he’d fry a liverwurst sandwich and try to wake up. Then he’d have this day around the housing project, and it was pretty grim. I thought, “Well, I could contrast his current life with this really romanticized version I have in my head of what it was like growing up in the South.” But a set of circumstances sort of led me away from that. First and foremost was the fact that I couldn’t secure permission to film in his apartment. It was government-subsidized housing.
A big roadblock.
I was like, “Oh, Christ, what am I going to do?” So I took photographs of the entire apartment, 360 degrees. I knew a friend who had a warehouse that we could use in Chicago, and Howard agreed to let me move his entire living room down there from Detroit.
Oh my God!
[laughs] Yeah, and so I faked that for his house. I didn’t want to tell anybody I had done that! Now it’s OK because it’s 25 years later, you know? It’s a very strange documentary.
I always think that you should wait until about 20 years later if you’re going to do a commentary on a film you’ve made. All the people are dead…
And you can probably set aside a lot of weird ego stuff, too.
The commentary that Coppola did for The Godfather was done many years later, and it’s the greatest commentary ever—almost as great as the film. Unbelievable, the stories he has.
Did you remain close with Howard Armstrong after shooting was done?
Yeah, we were pretty tight. We spent about a year promoting the film together—him, me, and his musician friend from the film Ted Bogan. Whatever festival would show the film, I would try to get them flown out too. We got a few of them to do it. We got to hang out in Hawaii and play music and cards for a week when we went to a festival there. And we did Telluride together. When the film got a theatrical run, occasionally a theater would let me bring them along and we’d have a special concert on opening night. So, yeah, we remained close. We used to correspond. I commissioned him to do a second Whorehouse Bible for me.
Man, that looks like the most incredible thing when he pages through it in the film. It’s his homemade compendium of his drawings and personal sex stories, all handwritten and pretty graphic. Has anybody ever published his books?
I tried to get it published. Hugh Hefner was actually very interested in it. He really liked the film. He had me to the mansion once. In fact, he really liked Crumb too. He showed it at the film night he has every Friday. He screens a movie and has his pals over, these old personalities like Mel Torme—
Ah, the Velvet Fog.
Yeah. And then you’d turn around and see the guy from I Spy. It was a surreal evening. But Hefner was a very sharp guy.
He had such good taste in so many things, but not so much in women the last couple of decades, unfortunately.
But he’s a very savvy guy. Knows a lot about cartooning and jazz. As I was leaving that night, he said, “What are you going to do next?” I said, “Woody Allen’s producer just called me and they’re interested in me doing a documentary on him, and I’m a big Woody Allen fan so I might do that.” Hugh Hefner said, “Oh, that would be great. But if that falls through and you ever want to do any of these Playboy videos we’re making…” At the time they were doing these Playmate videos, and they were huge sellers. They’d be in the top ten for rentals and sales every week. I’d never seen one, so I just said, “Uh, thanks.” He said, “Here’s a number. If you’re interested, call my guy. We’d like to have you do these.”
And did you call?
I did, out of curiosity. I said, “I have to confess, I’ve never seen one of these.” So the guy sent me a box of them. They were these very formulaic things, 30 minutes of the Playmate of the Month riding a white horse in slow motion on a beach with her tits bobbing.
Oh yes, I remember those. I was able to get my hands on a couple of them early in my adolescence.
Right. [laughs] So I called the guy back and I said, “Do these pay well at all?” He said, “Not really, since everybody wants to do them.” I said, “Well, I might do one for the fun of it, but you’d have to be open to me doing it my own way.” He said, “Let me run it by Hef.” And then I got the word back like, “Nah, these are our bread and butter. We make a fortune with these. We can’t afford to change them.”
So you didn’t want to smear Vaseline on the lens and shoot white sheets blowing in the wind?
Ha. No. The whole thing sort of reminded me of what the recording studios did with black musicians in the 20s. It’s so rare to find a recording by a black string band or jug band singing and playing a popular tune—or anything other than blues—even though, in real life, a lot of their repertoire would be pop music. But they were rarely able to record it. There were a few that snuck by, but mostly they wanted blacks to keep playing blues because of its proven salability. They wanted whites to play the hillbilly stuff. But in truth, they both influenced each other quite a bit.
The new Crumb DVD has a nice commentary track with you and Roger Ebert speaking.
You know, I’ve never gone back and listened to the Ebert commentary since doing it. I should have, because I probably repeated myself. Did I? Did you listen to my solo commentary too?
Yeah, there’s not that much repetition. Ebert spends a lot of time drawing you out. It’s interesting. His comments are usually right on, but he sometimes makes these sort of psychological assessments of people in the film and you’ll kind of shoot them down.
[laughs] I do?
You’ll be like, “Well… it wasn’t really that way.” But one thing that really struck me, very early in the commentary, is when you say that when the movie was coming together, you were suffering from such atrocious chronic back pain that you’d taken to sleeping with a gun under your pillow in case you suddenly decided to kill yourself.
Yes, I was. I had developed this back pain and it just got worse and worse. I’d been going to doctors and getting x-rays and they’d say, “It’s a disc problem, it’s only going to get worse, you need surgery…” I wound up taking to my bed for years, just trying to drag myself to the hospital for physical therapy. It got to the point where I figured that my life was so worthless that I was just going to get a gun and try to get the nerve to kill myself. I mean, I was depending on friends and neighbors to bring me a meal once a day.
And so you were still in bad shape when shooting for Crumb started?
I was in agonizing pain, especially during the scenes with Charles Crumb, which are the best scenes in the film and probably the first thing I shot because I knew I had to get it. It seemed like the most important thing to get down. But I remember, that day, my back was just killing me. It felt like somebody was holding a blowtorch to it. Between takes, I would just collapse on the floor to relieve the pain. If I lay down, it felt OK.
Wow. Were Charles and Robert aware of how bad it was for you?
I hid it pretty well. Unfortunately, in those days I didn’t know anything about narcotics. Otherwise, I probably would have been gulping pills just to stay on my feet.
You’d have a very different film on your hands if you’d been doped up the whole time.
Right! But then, eventually, I was listening to Howard Stern and I heard him raving about this guy John Sarno who had cured Stern’s back pain. So I looked him up, and the guy saved my life. In fact, I just saved the life of a woman who I heard about who was suffering from the same thing. She literally had a gun and was going to kill herself. She said, “I’ve told my boyfriend, my family, and every friend I have that you saved my life.” I said, “All I did was tell you to read this book! Don’t thank me. Thank this guy Sarno.”
In a nutshell, what is his treatment like?
It’s about understanding what is actually causing the pain. It’s a real pain, it’s not imagined, but it’s from chronically holding your back tight so that circulation doesn’t clear out the toxins in your muscles. His theory is that’s more of a soft tissue and muscle and circulation problem than a disc problem. He says that once you realize that and get away from doctors that are telling you the wrong things, you start to relax. I know that it sounds like complete poppycock.
It sort of sounds like The Secret on Oprah or something.
Yeah. It’s like complete nonsense, and believe me, I’ve been through my share of nonsense—out of desperation. So I thought, “OK, I’ll just go along with this and it will fail too.” I’m the most cynical and skeptical guy there is. But it worked.
So did you gain any unexpected insights from going back and reviewing these two films?
Yeah, one thing that struck me was this incredible string of coincidences that was involved in both of them. For instance, there’s a still photograph included in the Criterion edition of Louie Bluie that shows me taking the cast and crew to Long John Silver’s for lunch. And then ten years later, all I’m talking about with Charles and Robert is Treasure Island.
Ha, right. Charles Crumb’s obsession with that movie is so huge.
And then there’s that whole story regarding Louie Bluie, about starting out to make a magazine article for Old Time Music and then recognizing this woman Willie Seavers in this barn in Tennessee.
The woman from the Tennessee Ramblers. In the film, you stop into this barn where there’s a random band playing, just to see what’s going on and maybe get Armstrong involved.
Yeah, and she was in there and recognized Howard Armstrong when we brought him in. The last time she’d seen him was in 1930, and that was the one day they’d ever met. She still remembered him because he’d made such an impression on her.
It’s great when they play together. But yeah, it sounds like some kind of force was favoring your undertakings.
I took these coincidences to be that. Like it was some sort of fate, you know?
For sure. And I can never think of Long John Silver’s without thinking of Charles Crumb. He’s such an important figure in the film. I’m always really moved by him when I watch it.
You know, I had to fake the audience cards from a test screening because of Charles. Everyone wanted him cut out of the film. Once the 100 cards were turned in, I said, “Let me take those home and I’ll look at them tonight.” They were all really negative and just wanted Charles and Maxon Crumb out. So I printed up 100 blank cards at Kinko’s that night and disguised my handwriting with different pens and wrote in comments like, “More Charles!” I gave those to my producer. I sort of feel bad about it on some level.
No, it’s great!
I had to do it. Those test screenings are not fun. It’s a horrible system.
Were you ever able to get Charles to venture to the outside world with you?
No, he really wouldn’t leave the house even when I met him for the first time in 1974. And, of course, there was a revival of the film Treasure Island playing two blocks away at the local theater. Another weird coincidence. We told him about it and you could tell he really wanted to go, but he couldn’t do it. What’s the likelihood of that movie playing at the one theater in their town that booked secondhand films? It probably hadn’t played there in 40 years.
The more Treasure Island you put out into the universe, the more you’re going to get back.
[laughs] I hope.
Was Charles diagnosed with anything in particular?
He was in a mental institution for a while, and he told me that he hoped that when his mother died he’d get to go back there. He rather enjoyed the social life there. He’d get to sit around and play cards and talk to people. But I don’t know how long he spent there or when that was. He talked about it for the film, but for some reason it never worked its way into the final cut. It was probably because my producer was saying, “This thing is so fuckin’ long. You can’t make it any longer!”
What were the immediate effects of the release of the documentary on your friendship with Robert Crumb?
You know, there never was an effect. You can read on the internet about us having a falling out and then a reconciliation. But that makes no sense. The most trouble we had were a few moments where Crumb would come up to me good-naturedly after having a camera in his face for two weeks and say something like, “If you weren’t my best friend, I would say ‘I have to go to the bathroom’ and you’d never see me again.” I think he was a bit shocked at how much media attention the film got when it came out. At that point he had, luckily, just moved to France and so he escaped most of it. I remember producers from shows like Jay Leno and David Letterman trying to get Crumb to go on their programs, and of course that’s the last thing on earth he would ever do.
I was fortunate enough to be exposed to things like Zap Comix at a very young age. Crumb was not really a household name back then, in the early 80s. Now, I would say he is. And he’s very establishment too, working for the New Yorker and doing his huge Genesis book. I wonder how much your film had to do with that transition.
He was offered $3 million for the original artwork from his Book of Genesis. He turned it down, of course, right away. [laughs] You could get a great record collection for that, I told him.