Berkeley is a town full of ghosts to me

Every now and then I’ll pass this building on the corner of Telegraph & Dwight. And I’ll get a lump in my throat and feel like I’m gonna start crying. It’s where I met Duncan for the first time. Way back in 1978. It was a xerox shop back then. Krishna Copy. And I was making copies of some of my cartoons. And Duncan was at the xerox machine across from me making copies of the pages of this little 16-page zine he published, Tele Times. I can still vividly see the picture in my mind 42 years later.

I was 21 and just getting started with my life. I think I had only sold two of my cartoons at this point. And Duncan — even though he was a decade older than me and in his 30s — was just getting started with his life, with his artistic career (he had spent most of his 20s locked up in a mental asylum — “You’ll most likely spend your whole life in a mental asylum,” his shrink had told him). So Duncan was just getting started on his life too.

Duncan was the one who approached me. He had noticed out of the corner of his eye that I was xeroxing copies of original comic art. Just like I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he was xeroxing off pages of a comics zine. “Ahh, would you be interested in letting me publish some of your cartoons in my magazine?” said Duncan.

So that’s how it started.

I’m not sure why it makes me want to cry when I think about it now 42 years later. I guess because life can just be kind of sad, how it all unfolds over the years. . . Or maybe it’s just because life can be such an overwhelming experience. You’re flooded with so many emotions. . . Sometimes you cry not because you’re sad. But because you’re just overwhelmed by it all.

Some of the publications of B.N. Duncan

 

B.N. Duncan was one of the most relentlessly creative people I’ve ever met. In the 30 years I knew him, I don’t remember a single day going by when Duncan wasn’t creating something: writing, drawing, photographing, painting, sculpting, publishing.

The art flowed out of him naturally and effortlessly. If not compulsively. Like eating and sleeping and breathing. And probably just as necessary to him. He wasn’t an artist who waited around for “inspiration” to strike — he was always inspired. And you’d never hear him talk about “writer’s block.” Are you kidding?? He couldn’t have stopped it from coming if he had wanted to.

These are some of the publications B.N. Duncan produced during his lifetime. And I was there for the creation of most of them. Looking over his shoulder as he first came up with the idea, then worked to create the piece, and then finally produced the finished product.

One of my favorite Duncan moments was right after the latest issue of his magazine TELE TIMES had been published. Hot off the presses. Duncan would take out a copy — the ink still shiny and barely dried. And he’d lie on his big brass bed in his cramped little hotel room on the fourth floor of the Berkeley Inn. With a warm cup of coffee and a pack of smokes. And he’d lovingly leaf through every page, every word.

B.N. Duncan.

A time capsule back to the Berkeley Inn

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Some songs are like time capsules. They take you back to a period of time. And when you hear them again, decades later, it’s like all the memories of that time are somehow encoded in the music. And when you hear it again you might start crying and crying and never stop.

I used to listen to this song on this one album by Peter Green in the summer of 1982. I was staying with my friend Duncan at his hotel room in the Berkeley Inn. And my big dream At the time was to publish an underground newspaper. And as I worked on laying out the lay-out pages for what would be TWISTED IMAGE #1 on Duncan’s desk — rubber cement, x-acto knife, white-out, etc, the tools of the trade — I used to listen to this song over and over. “When Kings Come Home” was the title. It’s an instrumental, just one guy playing an acoustic guitar. And It was like soothing background music that helped me concentrate on the work at hand.

Duncan had this dusty little hotel room. It must have been about 20-feet-by-20 feet. It had a big brass bed, and a desk, and a sink, and one window that looked at to the back corners of Telegraph Avenue. And that was it. I can still see Duncan’s hotel room clear as a bell. I even remember his room number. 414. On the fourth floor. And he had a bunch of posters on his walls. A beautiful blue photo of a whale leaping out of the water. A poster of Princess Diana (go figure — Duncan was English). And he had xeroxes of all the covers of his underground zine TELE TIMES on the wall behind his bed. Every time he published a new issue he’d immediately scotch-tape a Xerox of the latest cover on the wall. Like a trophy. I think he had about 25 covers on his wall at that point. All posted in chronological order. Like a history of his on-going accomplishments.

And Duncan also had this cheap record player. It was just a box that folded out with a handle and a tinny little amplifier built into it (if you were a kid in the 60s you probably had one of those record players in the days before stereos). And he had a stack of records. I remember he had “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfield. And, oddly an album by Laverne and Shirley — the TV sit com actresses — singing the rock songs from the’ 50s. That was one of his favorites.

And he had this one too. It was a quirky compilation album by John Fahey and Leo Kotke and Peter Lang. And I used to play it over and over back in June of 1982 in Duncan’s little hotel room.

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Decades later I was trying to remember what that one particular song was that I used to play over and over back in 1982 in Duncan’s dusty little hotel room. All I remembered was that it was a compilation album with John Fahey. I couldn’t remember the song title or the album title or even who did it (Peter Lang). Finally — thanks to the wonder of YouTube — I was finally able to find it. And as I listen to it now, it’s like I’m back in Duncan’s hotel room and it’s 1982 and we were young and everything was starting. And then in a blink of an eye it all came and went.

 

When Kings Come Home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LocAHVcuROU

The B.N. Duncan archives are now available at the Ohio State Cartoon Museum & Library

Biographical note from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum 

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Biographical description written by Ann Lennon and will accompany the Duncan archives. . . . .Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum <cartoonevents@osu.edu>

B.N. Duncan was born in Rochester New York in 1943. His mother left his father when Duncan was an infant and moved to Berkeley and later, when Duncan was 14, to Pasadena. After graduation he attended Pasadena Community College but suffered several mental breakdowns. He returned to Berkeley in 1966 a diagnosed schizophrenic. Encouraged by his art teacher, Dick Warner at Vista Community College, he began cartooning in the early 1970s. Around this time he was briefly married. He lived most of his life on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue working as a cartoonist, editor and publisher. His full name was Bruce Nicholson Duncan but he preferred to be known as B. N. Duncan or just Duncan.

His first strip ‘Hank and Hannah’ about a couple and their relationship and ran in porn newspapers and new wave zines. Another strip ‘Berserkeley Blues’ was published by the Berkeley Daily Gazette and it was through it he met Telegraph Avenue street person Wild Billy Wolf. Wolf was working on a zine called ‘The Tele Times’. Duncan provided art for its first cover in 1978 and he collaborated with Wolf on early issues. Duncan eventually took over the publication, making it his own, a vehicle to share his passions and interests and a way to celebrate the outsider art and writing he enjoyed. He produced over 30 issues of ‘The Tele Times’ until it ceased publication in 1982.

He drew for the underground comics ‘Weirdo’ and ‘Mineshaft’ and he corresponded with a wide range of other underground cartoonists and comics people including Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb and Kim Deitch.

He had a strong interest in sadomasochistic sex and drew for ‘Growing Pains’ the publication of the San Francisco ‘Society of Janus’ as well as other S/M publications. He self-published the titles ‘Top Comedy and Bottom Burlesque’, ‘So be it’ and ‘Buttock’s Blasting’ and in 1995 he published a collection of SM cartoons through Greenery Press called ‘Mercy??’’No!!’. Much of the S/M material he produced is graphic but commentators have noted how the drawings ‘have a humane approach to the situations presented’.

In the early 1990s with the encouragement of the Berkley Friends Church he published two collections of spiritual cartoons called ‘Nature and Spirit’ and ‘Seeking Vision. His lifelong interests in anthropology, paleontology and zoology, are evident in both these and in his experiments with clay sculpture.

From 1990-2004 Duncan collaborated with cartoonist Ace Backwords to create an annual calendar called the ‘Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar’. It featured Berkeley street people and the stories of the socially marginalized in and around Telegraph Avenue. Duncan took thousands of photographs of street people for the calendar and taped many interviews with the homeless, work he considered ‘street anthropology’. Through both ‘The Tele Times’ and the ‘Telegraph Avenue Calendar’ he made enormous efforts to promote the art of outsider and street artists living in and around Berkeley. He believed that ‘even people on a society’s margin have something to contribute to its sensibility and spirituality’.  

Duncan’s suffered ill health in his final years and he died in 2009 aged 65.

All of Duncan’s publications, his original art, his photos, his correspondences, and much much more are now available to the public at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum and Library.

How I met the famous poet Julia Vinograd

 

Oddly, the first time I met Julia Vinograd I scared her.

It was 1978 and she lived in a little hotel room on the fourth floor of the Berkeley Inn. My friend Duncan lived down the hall, and often published her poems in his zine TELE TIMES. He also published my underground comix in TELE TIMES.

So one afternoon, after visiting with Duncan, I was getting into the elevator. And Julia got in at the same time.

So I introduced myself. I figured we were both hip underground artists getting published in Duncan’s hip underground zine TELE TIMES. I happened, at the time, to be holding in my hands one of my hip underground comix. I had brought the original art up there to show Duncan. It was some weird, bizarre underground sex cartoon that I had just hacked out. But I figured Julia was a fellow hip bohemian artist. So I showed it to her as we rode on the elevator together.

She took one look at the cartoon. And she instantly had a horrified look on her face. She moved to the farthest end of the elevator. And wouldn’t look at me or talk to me for the rest of the elevator ride.

And when we finally got to the first floor, she bolted out of that elevator and headed for the front door as fast as she could, never once looking back.

Ha ha. What can I say? I was 22 and not particularly bright and just figuring out how to present my artwork to a breathless public.

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Harvey Pekar

 

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Some guys on Facebook were talking about Harvey Pekar’s appearances on the David Letterman Show back in the late 1980s.  That got me to thinking about ole’ Harvey . . .

I thought they were a good match, Harvey and Letterman.  They both enjoyed the verbal jousting.  And Harvey was always the instigator of the insults.  So you could hardly blame Letterman for firing back in kind.  And, to his credit, Letterman kept inviting Harvey back right to the end.

I think Letterman was genuinely amused AND genuinely repulsed by Harvey at the same time.  I think it blew Letterman’s mind that Harvey was so UNIMPRESSED about being on television.  Slouching in the guest chair like he was lounging in his living room.  I think Letterman found it both refreshing and perverse.  Since “television exposure” is the life-blood to most of the celebrity-whores in Letterman’s orbit.  What could me more important than BEING ON TV??  It was almost sacreligious to Letterman how cavalier Harvey was about being on television.  Harvey rightly saw TV as the exercise in greed, vanity and vacuity that it is.

I got a special kick out of Harvey’s Letterman appearances.  Because I had known Harvey since 1979 when he started contributing literary reviews to my pal Duncan’s zine, TELE TIMES.  At the time I had Harvey Pekar pegged as kind of a loser (shows you what I know).  He wrote this obscure literary review column that almost nobody read, for a xeroxed zine.  And self-published an equally-obscure comic book that sold about 30 copies (one of Harvey’s big complaints back then — and you know Harvey ALWAYS had complaints —  was his storage locker full of boxes and boxes of unsold copies of AMERICAN SPLENDOR).

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 So when Harvey appeared on Letterman, it was stunning to me for two reasons:   1.)  The kick of seeing “somebody I know” on television.  And 2.)  He absolutely KILLED.  Harvey got more genuine belly-laughs than just about any professional comedian who ever appeared on Letterman.

I still got a VCR cassette tape (remember those?) stashed in my storage locker somewhere, that Harvey sent us of his first two Letterman appearances.  Along with a bizarre interview he did with his friend Toby, who worked with him as a clerk at the VA hospital.

I never knew Harvey Pekar that well, personally.  But, like I lot of people, I felt I knew Harvey Pekar, because he revealed so much of himself in his art and writing.

Near the end of his life, Harvey made one last appearance in Berkeley at some kind of promotional event.  Duncan was in the audience.  And Harvey called out from the stage to Duncan, asked him how he was doing, etc.  That was pretty cool.  That was just like Harvey.  Wherever he was, he seemed to act like the whole world was his living room.  Or should be.  Ha ha.

But I always get this weird feeling.  One minute it’s this dynamic thing with all these dynamic people.  And then you blink your eyes and it’s all over.  Harvey is dead, and Duncan is dead, and Letterman is retiring, and even VCR cassette tapes are a thing of the ancient past.  And the whole thing seemed so full of life, and then in a blink of an eye it’s all gone, gone, gone. . . . As if it never even happened.

I remember one of the last stories Harvey wrote in AMERICAN SPLENDOR, about his mother and father.  Near the end of the story he wondered if they had ever really been happy.  Then he mused (words to the effect):  “I guess it really doesn’t matter whether they were happy.  This life is over so quickly I guess it really doesn’t matter if you’re happy or not.”

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