Ace Backwords: rock critic

For a couple of years I did a monthly record review column with my friend Mary Mayhem. It was patterned after Siskel & Ebert at the Movies — Backwords & Mayhem at the Records. And we’d both review the same records, giving them thumbs up or thumbs down. Usually I’d just tape-record me and Mary talking about the records as we listened to them. Then I’d edit the tape down to the column. Mostly it was just an excuse to hang out with Mary, drink beer, and listen to music. And you know me, I love to gas off with my opinions. So it was a lot of fun.

I’d mail the column out to various zines and alternative newspapers across the country. I think at its peak we were reaching about 100,000 readers a month. Didn’t make much money. But the real perk was, free records.

I mailed out copies of the column to every record label I could think of. And pretty soon I was getting like a hundred free records in the mail every month. I didn’t have time to listen to most of the records. Usually I’d play thirty seconds of the first track, and if it didn’t grab me by then, I’d take it off and go on to the next record. Ha ha. Half of them I would sell at the local used record store. And most of the rest of them I’d give to my friends.

With the smaller, independent record labels, I’d make an effort to plug them. Because most of them were operating on a shoe-string, and it cost them money to mail them out. But the major record labels, I just looked at as a big tit to milk. And years after I stopped writing the column, they still kept sending me their latest records every month. . . Once you get on the promo list of the major record labels, you’re on the gravy train, baby.

I don’t know if “genius is pain” but being a freelance artist can certainly be a pain in the ass

This was the cover to my collection of comics (published by Loompanics 1990). But what annoys me to this day every time I see the cover. See the yellow panel at the bottom of the page?? That should have been colored white. Whoever designed the cover art for my book? They got it wrong. It annoys me to this day, every time I see it decades later.


Then, for my next cover, they screwed it up AGAIN. They inexplicably colored the straps of my backpack as if I was wearing a sleeve-less shirt. And if it wasn’t bad enough that they colored my work boots a bright red (I’m a dumpster-diver, not a CLOWN, dude!), they colored the cuffs of my pants as if they were part of my boots!! . .. And so now, every time I come across that cover over the last 30 years, that’s ALWAYS the first thing I think of.

So for my third cover, I figured: Fuck it. Black-and-white, baby. Let’s see them screw THAT up .

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May 5th, NATIONAL CARTOONIST DAY (be sure to worship them as gods for the next 24 hours)

I drew a comic strip off and on for about 20 years. It’s a pretty exacting medium. Every line, every word, has to be exactly in the right place in order to convey the punchline. And it doesn’t take much to throw off the timing and ruin the gag. Plus, you have to be able to conceive a worthy punchline out of your head, out of thin air, in the first place. It requires an odd combination of skills that really can’t be taught. You can either do it or you can’t.

Drawing a comic strip is like doing sketch comedy. Only you do everything. You write it, you draw it, you create the characters, you act out all the characters, you design the set, you design the costumes. You’re actor, writer, director, set designer, everything. And you have to be skilled in all these things to pull it off.

One thing it really requires is the ability to be concise. You have to pack all of this information into 3 or 4 little panels. So you can’t waste a single word. Doing a comic strip taught me how to express myself directly and forcefully. It is an in-your-face medium. You are reaching out and grabbing the reader by the collar and demanding: LOOK AT ME!!

It also teaches you how to package your thoughts and present them to others in an easily-digestible format. It’s like being an advertising executive, except instead of selling a product you’re selling your ideas.

A cop was once detaining me and grilling me about a possible offense I might have committed. In the course of the conversation he asked me about my employment history.
“I was a cartoonist for 20 years,” I said.
“Why’d you quit?” said the cop.
“I ran out of punchlines,” I said.

The cop laughed and let me go. . . I still know how to deliver a punchline if I need to.

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.

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:

Punk Rock nostalgia from 1982. The Eastern Front outdoor punk rock festival. Way rad

Somebody posted this on Facebook, a page from Twisted Image #2 from the summer of 1982. A photo feature Mary Mayhem put together of the Eastern Front punk rock festival down at the Berkeley marina.  “A Day on the Dirt” as it was billed.  Chron Gen, the Lewd, Husker Du, and others performed. . .  Seems like ancient history from another lifetime now, don’t it?




The Quayle Quarterly

Twisted Image, by Ace Backwords

One of the lowest moments of my cartooning career:

I don’t know if you remember the QUAYLE QUARTERLY. It was this magazine back when George Bush Sr. was Prez that mocked and satirized the Vice Prez, Dan Quayle. The main joke that the QUAYLE QUARTERLY repeated (over and over and over) was that Dan Quayle was really, really dumb and isn’t that really, really funny. They happened to see this comic strip I did about Bush, which they really liked.  So they offered me a thousand bucks up front to come up with 12 cartoons just like it (hopefully) about Dan Quayle for an anti-Dan Quayle calendar that they were gonna publish (one whacky Ace Backwords anti-Dan Quayle comic strips per month).

So I labored mightily and sweated profusely for several weeks to come up with the requisite 12 anti-Dan Quayle comic strips.

But the problem was. I found Dan Quayle so boring and pointless. All 12 of the comic strips I hacked out were crap.

The publishers of the Dan Quayle calendar also concluded my comic strips were crap. And decided not to publish them in their Dan Quayle calendar.

But at least they had the decency to pay me the thousand bucks anyways. Because they had commissioned me for the assignment.

And their Dan Quayle calendar was even crappier than my Dan Quayle comic strips.

Twisted Image, by Ace Backwords
Pretty lame.