Artists have always attributed inspiration to their muse (Though some of the more self-centered artists insist that they are their own). Usually, muses are dipicted in cartoons as apparitional women dressed in flowing, white gowns, holding golden harps, and floating around in the air somewhere in the vicinity of the artist. (I’m sure there’s one behind me right now, hard at work).
In San Francisco, before I got started at the NYer, I would sit for hours, waiting for inspiration in front of that “Blazing white island”, as Bill Woodman once called those blank pieces of paper we eventually draw on. (He was quoting a writer who’s name escapes me). I hadn’t yet learned that you don’t just wait around for the muse. You have to start doodling a little before she shows herself if she’s going to. I was living with a woman, then, a sometime muse and a classical violinist. Before meeting her, I’d been listening to a lot of country music. She had introduced me to the likes of Beethoven, Haydn, Vivaldi, and especially Mozart, who I loved. I still wore cowboy boots and occasionally a western-style hat, and carried a harmonica in my jeans-jacket pocket, but now I was whistling “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” around the house. I had a tape of that piece and another, I think his 5th Piano Concerto, which was on the flip side. The tape was always playing on my old cassette-player behind me as I worked on my cartoons.
One day while I was listening and doodling as usual, I found myself drawing an empty frame, then a horizon line within it. I added a few forlorn-looking clouds above the horizon, then some random objects in the foreground: An old tire, a tin can, an empty bottle, a pencil, and assorted debris. I stared at this melancholy scene for awhile then added a box at the top for a title. I was stuck there for awhile, then eventually lettered the words “Life Without …” in the box. The drawing could represent life without something, but what?
A few seconds later, I heard “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” suddenly stop playing behind me and then heard the sad, crunching sound tapes make when they self-destruct in a cassette-player’s mechanism as they die.
My muse at work.
This event provided me with the last word in the title. As it turned out “Life Without Mozart” became my first OK at the New Yorker.