Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Carlin's Curtain Call

I believe history, political, cultural, economic or sports, is driven by Ideas, but embodied by Deeds. That is to say, the American Revolutionary War would have been fought at some point in time because of the various pressures and beliefs, on both sides of the Atlantic. That it was fought when it was fought was as much the doing of George III as it was of a half-dozen wealthy white guys in Massachusetts and Virginia who decided they'd had enough.

Same thing, to me, holds true for Rock and Roll. I was born in 1952 and had no older brothers or sisters--for me, Danny and the Juniors At the Hop was the camel's nose under the tent but sociologists tell me, regardless of race, it was Elvis who legitimized rock and roll. When the Brill Building seemed to have co opted the fervor and the fever and gave us Frankie Avalon and Fabian, the outlanders in the UK, not realizing R&B wasn't on mainstream USA radio, gave us their version of it and forty-five years later we're still tallying the effect on our lives of all the bands and music that came over the bridge The Beatles built.

John Lennon remarked years after the group disintegrated but years before he was murdered that he fully expected, no matter what else he did in his life, when his obituary were written, the first thing it would mention was that he was in The Beatles. Of course, and sadly, he was right.

I mention that because sometimes we take mental snapshots of people and times in our lives and that's what we hold onto. As Ray Davies noted, people often change but memories of people can remain. When George Carlin died Sunday in Los Angeles, the obit from Reuters, in its first sentence, called him a 'counter-culture hero famed for his routines about drugs and dirty words.' And had he died in 1978, that would have been true enough-but he passed away thirty years later and Reuters couldn't be bothered to update the obit. I think Carlin would have found that funny.

I bought his debut album, for which he received the Grammy (and on his second elpee you can hear his reaction as that performance was taped for that album, interrupting the routine that would later get him to the Supreme Court) and went to see him with Sally Mary Atkins with whom I was madly in love for a semester while I was at Rutgers and she went to Boston College. Actually we didn't see him in the student center in New Brunswick because the performance was sold out ten times over but the campus radio station, WRSU-FM, and its program director, my classmate Bob Berman, received permission to 'broadcast' it through the university's buildings (the radio station had no transmitters nor license so there was never a danger children might hear George say words on the radio that their parent said during arguments in their living rooms. Thank goodness!).

George Carlin had been the hippy-dippy weatherman on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson and had characters like Congolia Breckenridge. He was, I learned years later, an Air Force broadcaster at Lajes Field in the Azores. While I was in the USAF, as a disc jockey, I often ran across folks who claimed to have heard him while at Lajes. By my rough count, had half of all those who said they were there actually been there, the island would have been renamed Atlantis and been found on the ocean's floor.

Carlin was part of the changing times in comedy in a way The Beatles, Dylan and the Stones were in pop music. He owed as much to Nichols and May as he did to Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart and the man who would prove to be a secular saint, Lenny Bruce. And by being a sum of all those parts and others, he transcended them and became part of a larger comedic conscience and consciousness that shapes in its way the comedy my children enjoy as much has his predecessors shaped mine. (I expect neither Dane Cook nor I am entirely comfortable with that notion, and that's fine by me.)

My son, Patrick, and I almost saw him, not like me and Sally decades earlier, but for real when he was at one of the casinos the winter before last. The day of the performance, it started snowing at noon and didn't stop for many hours--just driving home, normally a fifteen minute exercise took hours and both of us decided that we'd skip him and the casino postponed the performance and, not that we knew it at that time, we'd missed our last chance in this life to see him perform.

I, along with millions, watched him on his HBO specials though I became frightened by the erosive, caustic wit he seemed to display in ever more abundant supplies as the years went on. The later shows I found more angry than funny-as if he were growing less patient with our laughing at his stories and NOT hearing his larger points. Perhaps he had realized there were more horribly obscene things to be thought than The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television and none of us had yet realized that. He became Elijah but we didn't even see the desert, much less the wanderings and now it's too late. He may have been the first to make me realize I had become the very people my parents had warned me about.

You must remember me, old man. I know that you can if you try.
Just open up your eyes old man and look who's come to say good-bye.
-bill kenny

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