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Interview

Lou Brooks on his art and reading.

The Zipatones, midget car racing, and Soupy Sales…

READERSVOICE.COM: How did you meet fellow cartoonists like Bill Plympton and come to form with them Ben Day and the Zipatones? What kind of music and venues did you play, and how often, for how long?

LOU BROOKS: Right after I moved to New York City, it seemed that there was some sort of artsy fartsy soiree at least four or five nights a week. Makes me wonder how we all had time to do the art!

I met Bill Plympton at some cartoonist reception — I don’t remember exactly which one. He was a syndicated political cartoonist at the time for The Soho Weekly News, which doesn’t exist anymore. That same night, coincidentally, I met Harvey Kurtzman for the first time. I was in such awe, he finally had to ask me to let go of his hand. I linked up with Mark Alan Stamaty at some other party. Elwood, I had met through Michael Doret. Skip Johnston, our drummer, he popped up at some party or another, and was Lampoon AD at the time.

Everybody was always running into everybody. This was 1978 b.c. (before cyber). Bill was having frequent Friday night parties at his apartment. Lots of artists and musicians would show up, and you never knew who else to expect. I remember a hooker arriving late one party with her pet ferret, which immediately jumped down the shirt of cartoonist David Chelsea. We all tried to catch the ferret, and it was like we were suddenly in a remake of Willard.

The Zipatones sort of just came out of those parties. I came up with the name: Ben Day and the Zipatones.

Three of the women at Bill’s parties could sing like angels, so they became The Zipettes. One of them was married to the lead guitarist from Hall & Oates, so he’d sometimes show up at the parties when he wasn’t touring. Our music was pretty much divided into three categories: rock ‘n’ roll comedy songs that I wrote; country western music that the musicians liked; and

Mark Alan used to do this Elvis thing in a sort of parallel universe way. Hard to explain.

The first place we performed at was a tiny club called Bond Street. The ceiling was about seven feet high. A real fire trap. We jammed a couple hundred people in there, and it’s a wonder that we all made it out alive. But that was our first performance in public, and we went on from there.

We eventually played Irving Plaza to 1,500 people. A big venue for us. The same stage and dressing rooms used by by James Brown, the Dead Kennedys, and many others, as they say.

The entourage kept growing, and by then we had picked up illustrator Leslie Cabarga on keyboard, and cartoonist Sam Viviano as our emcee. Sam eventually became AD at Mad Magazine, and still is.

RV: How did you come to meet Soupy Sales and spend an evening swapping jokes with him? What was he like?

LB: Film producer Jerry Lieberman and I had become close friends by working on animation projects together over the years. He had been working with Soupy on a television project, and arranged for Clare and I to have dinner with Soupy and his wife, Trudy, at Jerry’s wife’s loft in Tribeca.

Trudy used to be one of the June Taylor dancers on The Jackie Gleason Show. The whole evening turned into a joke marathon between Soupy and me. I was very leery about going up against a joke king the stature of Soupy, but he just kept egging me on. He was very sweet and kind to us, treated us like we had been his friends for years, and he was simply fall-off-your-chair hilarious.

At one point, he chased Clare and Jerry’s wife, Joni, around the room while doing White Fang. Only Soupy fans will know what that is, and that’s fine. One of the greatest evenings of my life.

RV: How did you start getting interested in racing modified midget racing cars, at Airport Speedway, in Dover, Delaware? What were the people like, and why did you stop after two years?

LB: Just like many boys grew up near Yankee Stadium and wanted to be a baseball player, I grew up near Langhorne Speedway, this huge mile dirt track outside of Philadelphia. It was mightily famous back then. It’s pretty much a parking lot now.

I used to ride my bike over there into the infield for 50 cents, and sit as close against the track fence as I could get. It was hot and brutal and they soaked the track clay in crankcase oil. If anybody can bottle that smell for me, let me know… eau de crankcase.

Anyway, racing was really dangerous back then, and at a young age, I saw a couple of guys buy the farm there at Langhorne, but I got hooked on it all just the same.

So, fast forward to Airport Speedway in 1995. Eighth-mile dirt track with that same crankcase oil. I was 52. I’d escaped from New York with my hide, and Clare said, “It’s now or never!”, so I bought a modified midget, and for two years, it was like running away to join a carnival every Saturday night. The people were… well, they hadn’t read Madame Bovary, let’s say. But the track lights would come on at sundown. And we’d spit in the dirt like real men do. And the Jersey girls were walking around in their denim shorts. And life was beautiful.

Following 20 Manhattan years of calling for the super, the simplicity and grit and naivety — along with the enigma of forboding tools — were pretty irresistible. Simple laws of physics began to slowly make sense. Two seasons later, I was finally catching on to the good advice of “drive in deep — deal with it later,” and I almost won the last big race of the year.

But it was time to move to California. I thought I’d keep racing out here (after all, the automobile is California’s state bird). But there are now other things I must do. I’m still dreaming about it, though.

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