Monday, October 12, 2009

Interview With Mark Alan Stamaty

FOR HIS EIGHTH birthday, Mark Alan Stamaty’s parents gave him his very own radio. Little did his mother realize that that innocent-looking plastic box would one day be the gateway for a new kind of sound that would “rock” her nearly out of her mind. . . .

Mark first heard the howling thunder of Elvis Presley singing Hound Dog on the radio one lazy day and his life was forever changed. Soon he was styling his hair like the King and practicing his dance moves with a tennis racket as his pretend guitar in front of the mirror. But his mother lived in constant fear that her son’s new love of rock ’n’ roll would turn him into a juvenile delinquent. Could Mark’s performance at his Cub Scout talent show change her mind?
–Knopf Books for Young Readers

There are scads of brilliant cartoonists and illustrators around, but I like Mark Alan Stamaty the best because he has the most heart and soul. His new book
SHAKE, RATTLE & TURN THAT NOISE DOWN!: How Elvis Shook Up Music, Me and Mom will be out January 12, 2010. But I can't wait that long. I have to ask him some questions now.

Please tell me more about hearing Elvis for the first time. Where were you and how did it affect you?

The first time I heard Elvis Presley's Hound Dog, I was in my room in our house on the Jersey shore. I'd never heard anything like it. The year was 1956 and I was either 8 or 9, depending on when exactly that record was released. According to my research, the release date was probably July 13th, but it's hard to nail that down for sure. On August 1st of that year, I turned 9.

My reaction to Elvis was a powerful one. His music overtook me, filled me with a very happy feeling, made me want to move and dance. I was an instant fan. My mother's reaction was completely the opposite. In my newest book, SHAKE, RATTLE & TURN THAT NOISE DOWN! I tell the story of how Elvis exploded into our home and set off passionately opposing reactions in Mom and me while he was also, by the way, changing the world.

Initially, my mother forbade me to own any of his records. I could only hear him on the radio. She couldn't stand his music. She thought it was just a lot of screaming. My mother's musical tastes were of the previous mainstream era of the Big Bands like Glenn Miller, etc. and singers like Bing Crosby, Helen O'Connell, Perry Como, etc. She didn't think Elvis' records bore any relation to music. Plus, she was afraid that Elvis would turn me into a juvenile delinquent–a prevalent fear among many grown-ups of that era. She couldn't stand his "sneer", etc., etc. But then he came out with Love Me Tender and she was stunned. She couldn't believe he could sing such a sweet ballad like that and she actually let me buy that one Elvis record. But, in so doing, there was one little factor she didn't think of. And suffice it to say, when that little factor manifested–I'm being a little mysterious here–she finally surrendered and let me buy all the Elvis records I wanted. But she still worried and got upset. She still feared that Elvis might be my ruination.

The book already sounds like a classic.

SHAKE, RATTLE & TURN THAT NOISE DOWN was a labor of love for me. It is a very personal story, but I think it is also kind of universal in its depiction of a classic sort of generation gap–a parent not only not appreciating, but, in fact, being horrified by the music and idol of her child. And a child not understanding how his parent could be so upset by something so clearly wonderful. The book also gives some sense of the importance of Elvis in the history of popular music and culture, while at the same time making mention and paying homage to the great musicians who preceded him and the great musicians who, because of Elvis' breakthrough, were able to enjoy much wider popularity in the mainstream of American and world culture. Elvis didn't create Rock 'n' Roll. My book is very clear about that. What he did do was popularize it. And that was no small achievement.

You did your Elvis impersonation for President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. How did that come about?

Our visit took place on Saturday, March 13th, 1993 in the midst of a huge blizzard that was burying Washington in heavy snowdrifts. We were a group of political cartoonists who were in the nation's capital for an annual cartoonists' dinner that was hosted by The Washington Post. It was a small group of about ten or twelve cartoonists, each allowed to bring one guest. Normally, we would meet for dinner on the 9th floor of the Post building. Normally in attendance, in addition to us, were the owner and publisher of the Post, the editorial page editor and a few well-known journalists from print and TV. Added to this each year were two currently prominent political figures - senators, cabinet members, etc. and their spouses. These were one-time invitees. Through the years, the special guests included Sen. Howard Baker, former VP Walter Mondale, Dick and Lynne Cheney (before Cheney had been VP), Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. Al Gore (before he was VP), Sen. John Glenn, etc., etc. (The party had originally been started by the former managing editor of the Post, Howard Simons in the early '70s.)

After the meal part of those dinners, the floor would be opened for any of the guests to say whatever he or she might like to say. But essentially this was the time when the cartoonists in particular were kind of expected to tell funny stories. I think this expectation might have originated from the fact that in the early years of this party, Jeff MacNelly and Mike Peters, once they got going, were two hilarious guys. And some of the others could, at times, be too. My political cartooning career started later than some of the other guys, so I got invited into the club after it had been going for a several years. And while on occasion I could come up with a funny story, the thing I could bring to the evening that no one else could was my Elvis impersonation which I had been doing since I was a kid. So, at the very end of every one of those dinners, I would be called on to do my Elvis impersonation to finish off the evening. Meg Greenfield, my editor at the Post, called it "the benediction."

More details, please

The day of our White House visit it was just us cartoonists and our guests. Not everyone had been able to get to Washington on time because of the blizzard. Our group included these cartoonists: Jeff MacNelly, Jim Borgman, Mike Peters, Doug Marlette, and myself. Also with us was the legendary animator of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and creator of the Roadrunner, Chuck Jones, who had been a regular attendee since Mike Peters had befriended him and invited him into our group years before. Tony Auth might have been with us, but I can't recall for sure.

So, first off, we got a tour of the White House and met Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin somewhere downstairs. He was very friendly and spoke with us a bit.

When we finally entered the Oval Office, President Clinton was on the phone and seemed rather preoccupied when he finished and joined us. He was wearing a sweater. He seemed relaxed but rather low-key. We started talking about one thing and another. I asked him a question about health care reform. At some point, Al Gore came in and joined us all. After a while, the Vice President spoke up and said: "In his lifetime, Elvis only visited the White House once, but he's here among us today." I had actually known Al Gore since 1982 when he was in the House of Representatives and professed to be a fan of my comic strip WASHINGTOON that ran on the Washington Post op-ed page every Monday.

So this was my cue to do my Elvis for the president, who, as I understand it, is an Elvis fan. Somewhere I'd heard that the president did an Elvis impersonation–I'm not sure if that was true–so I asked him to do his Elvis but he demurred. So I stood up, took off my jacket and tie, unbuttoned a few shirt buttons, turned up my collar and did my a cappella version of All Shook Up.

What was Clinton's reaction?

It seemed to go over quite well. The president liked it so much he sent an aid up to the closet of his bedroom to get an Elvis Presley necktie he had there, which he signed and gave to me. When we were all leaving and he shook my hand, he leaned in close to my ear and said quietly: "You made this day." As we were heading out of the office, the defense secretary and several other advisers were hurrying in for an emergency meeting about the situation in Bosnia.

What kind of music are you listening to now?

These days I suppose my favorite kind of music to listen to is Blues. I have a lot to learn about Blues, but I love it. Especially a lot of acoustic Blues. And Blues from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Every now and then I hear some contemporary music that really moves me, but the music I love best includes Bob Dylan, James Brown, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Prince, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul Simon, the Beatles, Brenda Lee, Tom Waits, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, the Chantels and a bunch of those women's groups from the past. It's a longer list than this. I do mention some of my other favorites in my new book. I love a lot of R&B and doo-wop from the past. And Bruce Springsteen, Kid Rock, etc. And I also appreciate Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, which I didn't appreciate until I was in my 30s. I have to admit I have not followed popular music very closely for many years. I think it's generally a hormonal thing that we get formed musically during a certain age range of maybe ages 5 to 25. And after that, a lot of popular music that younger people are listening to starts to become a bit of a blur and everything seems to sound alike.

Do you like to dance?

Sometimes I like to dance. I like to dance when I hear music that makes me want to dance. Al Green, James Brown and Prince are three musicians who can, with some of their records, make it hard for me to stop myself from dancing. So it depends a lot on the music. There are some kinds of music that just don't reach me at all and I can't understand why people are dancing to it. And I like to dance to great slow songs like At Last, etc.

What are you reading these days?

Lately, I'm reading a lot about the Civil Rights Movement, because my next book will be about that subject.

I enjoy reading novels and graphic novels. But I happen to be a very slow reader. I'm not sure if it's the fault of the school system or if I might possibly have some form of dyslexia. But since the first grade when we started reading, I always read slowly and this has been a great frustration in my life because I love to read and I love to learn. So sometimes I reads parts of books and don't have time to finish. I have lots of books that I want to read. I'm trying to think of the last novel I read–it might have been six months ago. But there are a lot of novels and other books that I hold in my hand and want to read and start reading and have to put down to keep up with the race with time.

Among my favorite novels that I have read in the past are: A Confederacy of Dunces, Another Roadside Attraction, Bleak House, and The Catcher in the Rye. I've read lots of others through the years–and longed to read a lot more–but these are favorites I can recall at the moment.

Who are your favorite painters and sculptors?

My favorite painter is Henri Matisse. I think he is the greatest painter of the 20th Century. Other favorites of mine are Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, Paul Klee, Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollack, Richard Pousette-Dart, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Fernand Leger, Max Beckmann, Red Grooms, Henri Fantin-Latour, Jean Dubuffet, Wolf Kahn, Sue Coe, Stuart Davis, Jean Dufy, Jacob Lawrence, Marsden Hartley, Marca-Relli, Terry Winters, etc.

When I was in art school, my favorite painter was Chaim Soutine. I still appreciate his genius but he is no longer my favorite.

On the negative side, I think Clifford Still is possibly the most overrated painter in the history of American art.

My favorite sculptors include: Alexander Calder, David Smith, Mark Di Suvero, Kenneth Snelson, Jacques Lipshitz, Picasso, Henri Matisse and Degas.

Of course, I also love Saul Steinberg, George Grosz, Jules Feiffer, Ronald Searle, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman and a long list of cartoonists and illustrators. But I've said that in other interviews. I enjoy the chance to talk about painters and sculptors here, because I spend a lot of time in art museums and engaged in the visual world of "fine art."

Shoes. Do you have any in blue suede?

I had a pair of blue suede shoes that I bought in Greenwich Village back in the 1980s specifically for my Elvis act, which I used to do periodically with a band of cartoonist friends. But those shoes killed my feet. They were terrible. Simply walking in them would have been bad enough, but wiggling around doing an Elvis act in them was a life lesson in the dangers of style-over-comfort.


I was first introduced to Mark Alan Stamaty through his book
Who Needs Donuts. Here's a great interview from Rands In Repose all about that book. And here's a wonderful interview from The Education of a Comics Artist by Michael Dooley and Steven Heller.