"Robert Campbell (1951-2004)"

Article and Photo by Pablo Capra

In the May 20 issue of the Messenger I wrote a double-page spread (“Robert Campbell’s ‘Real Fantasy,’ Vol. 28 No. 10) celebrating the art and poetry of my friend, fellow poet, and Brass Tacks Press cofounder Robert Campbell.

It is with a profound sense of loss that I now report that eight days after that article was published Robert passed away.

I didn’t write about my friendship with Robert in that article, but I would like to say a few words about how I got to know him here.

In the mid-’80s, my father, art director Bernt Capra, went to a play with imaginative sets that impressed him so much that he decided to hire the hip young set designer with bleached hair who built them—Robert Campbell. So began their friendship and productive collaboration on several rock videos, TV movies, and feature films.

Some of Robert's credits include “Baghdad Cafe,” “Echo Park,” “Cold Feet,” and rock videos for Kenny Loggins, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, and Nirvana.

I was around five at the time, and enjoyed hanging around Robert during his extended visits when he would stay for months at my house. He was a short, funny, chubby man who I watched draw and paint in my backyard, and whose artistic abilities I grew up having a tremendous respect for. When I pictured an artist, I pictured Robert. I naively believed he was the best painter in the world.

In the mid-’90s, my father lost touch with Robert and we only occasionally heard about him through mutual friends.

Then, in 2000, he showed up at my father’s house out of the blue, looking totally different. I met him first, but didn’t recognize him until he said his name. My father and some of Robert’s other friends in our neighborhood didn’t recognize him at first either. He was skinny, dirty, missing teeth, half-blind, and had grown a disheveled beard.

Robert explained that he had been diagnosed with diabetes, but didn’t want to take insulin because it made him feel sick. He also didn’t believe that he had diabetes (Robert didn’t trust doctors), and would make up strange and nonsensical explanations for his health problems.

For example, he used to complain that he suffered from the side effects of other people’s drug and alcohol problems. Robert himself never drank or used drugs, except coffee and cigarettes.

Everyone was concerned about how he had been neglecting his health and appearance. According to Robert, one doctor had told him that his eyesight could be fixed with laser surgery, which we all advised him to get. But Robert worried that surgery would make his eyesight even worse. He also believed that having poor eyesight strengthened his inner vision.

He began to stay on and off at my father’s house again for long periods of time. During one of his earlier visits he brought over an extremely disorganized, messy, and beautiful graphic novel of more than 100 pages held together between two loose sheets of cardboard that he had recently had to stop working on because of his deteriorating eyesight.

Now, when Robert was visiting, he would often space-out, take naps, or smoke cigarettes in our backyard. Once I saw him scribbling in his notebook, and walked over to see what he had been writing. I was surprised to learn that it was a poem. It was really good and original, and I wondered if it was just a fluke. I congratulated Robert and typed the poem up for my family to read. Everyone else was impressed too.

After that, I began to type up everything he wrote and encouraged him to write more. He also encouraged me when I shared my own writing with him. I was impressed by how fast he could write, and by the surreal associations he would come up with.

By the summer of 2002, I had collected more than 50 of Robert’s poems. Whenever I submitted my poems to a magazine or literary journal, I always submitted Robert’s as well, but our poetry was always rejected. Frustrated, I asked him what we should do next, and he said that we should publish and distribute it ourselves in our own literary journal.

I asked my friend Richard McDowell to help us, and that summer the three of us created Brass Tacks Press.

In the almost two years since then, we’ve published 12 books featuring the work of various poets and artists.

Then, in late 2003, Robert impressed and inspired me all over again. I was hanging out with him at his home in downtown L.A. and I asked him if he could play the guitar that was leaning against his wall. I always knew that he considered his poetry as being close to music, but I didn’t think that he could actually play music. So I was totally unprepared when he picked up the guitar and started playing and singing a song he had written. Normally frail and spaced-out, he got into a groove as soon as he started playing the complicated melody. He played two more songs for me, and they all sounded great. Soon afterwards I started playing my guitar again, which I hadn't touched since high school.

Robert showed me that painting, poetry, sculpture, and music are just interchangeable mediums, and that a real artist is capable of using any of them to express his or her unique vision to the world.

On June 5, I went to visit him again at his home downtown (without calling first because he didn’t have a phone) and two grieving roommates answered the door. Something was wrong… but I was floored when they told me that Robert had died two Fridays ago on May 28—just over a month after his 53rd birthday.

Three Fridays ago I had gone downtown to bring Robert a laminated copy of my "Messenger" article about him, which had just appeared.

When I arrived at his building that day, I saw him standing outside on the sidewalk and greeted him as “the famous poet,” proudly showing him and everyone around us the article. I also gave him some of the first profits I had made selling copies of his new book, “Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake.”

Robert was extremely excited, especially because the title of the article (thanks to editor Dan Mazur) said in big letters “Robert Campbell’s ‘Real Fantasy.’” Real Fantasy was the name of the artistic movement that Robert had been trying to create his whole life. We hung the laminated article on his wall, and spent most of the day together celebrating.

According to Robert’s landlord, Robert had been drawing, writing, and hanging out with his downtown neighbors the night before he died. One roommate said that before he went to bed, Robert had complained to him about feeling bad. The roommate asked Robert if he wanted to go to the hospital, but Robert said no.

At 8 a.m. the following morning, Robert was found lying in the hallway outside his room by another roommate. The coroner identified the cause of death as diabetic ketoacidosis.

Robert's poetry was published by Brass Tacks Press in “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon,” “Life as a Poet: Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6,” and in his own book “Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake.”

We were in the process of publishing his graphic novel under the title “Floating” when the bad news came.

Robert is survived by his brother Dock, sister-in-law Cherry, and nephews Rodney, Erick and Jeremy Herron in Oakland, California; his sister Janice Newton in Savannah, Georgia; and his mother Margaret Winn in Marshall, Texas.

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