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by Bill Gibron

23 Jun 2008

For our generation, George Carlin and his comedy album Class Clown were like God (or maybe Moses) and his Bible (or at the very least, the Ten Commandments). Surrounded by prophets and other daring disciples like Cheech and Chong, the members of Monty Python, Richard Pryor, and other masters of the LP format, his irreverent observational takes on everything from baseball to language defined an entire legion of adolescent humor. He was the drawstring back to the ‘60s, the decade which saw him switch from standard, partnered comedian to the Hippie Dippie Weatherman. Long haired and bearded, he was the counterculture wrapped up in an Establishment acceptable package. It would prove to be the perfect juxtaposition to fuel his five decade long career.

And now he’s gone - dead from a heart attack at age 71. As usual, he was preparing another HBO special, his 15th, and weighing in on the upcoming Presidential election (though he rarely if ever voted). Carlin was as political as he was prosaic, a stern proponent of the First Amendment who saw his classic routine “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” creating a legal stir that found its issues dragged all the way to the US Supreme Court (Carlin won a moral, if not complete, victory). At the peak of his powers, he was likened to Lenny Bruce and his ‘70s co-conspirator Pryor. By the ‘90s, he was viewed as a creaky old school curmudgeon, no longer really relevant in an arena overrun with self-imposed irony, ethnic specific slams, and the last remnants of Steve Martin inspired absurdism.

Yet Carlin stands for much more than just wit and wisdom for the Woodstock crowd. He represented one of the first stand-ups to stay totally in touch with his life and times. As the world went from Eisenhower conservatism to proto-peace and love, he left his friend and performing colleague Jack Burns (himself a future humor Hall of Famer) to pursue his individual muse. Frequent appearances on the nation’s top two variety shows - Ed Sullivan and the Johnny Carson helmed Tonight Show - brought him more and more mainstream success. 1967 saw the release of his first album, Take Offs and Put Downs, and as his act developed and grew, he substituted more acceptable stints at colleges and ‘happenings’ for the radioactive glow of the boob tube.

As his material (and appearance) became more controversial, broadcast television was definitely less of an option. This is where his records came in. Like many comedians in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Carlin defined himself by those 33&1/3 long players. It was the only way that audiences outside the major nightclub circuit could ‘see’ contemporary stand up. Alone or in groups, turntable tracking the various bits and themes, these forefathers of the post-modern funny man turned rec rooms and bed rooms into shadowy, laugh-filled forums. By the time of his peak in 1975, he was the symbol of subversive humor, so much so that the then fledgling Saturday Night Live had Carlin on as its first ever guest host.

And just like that, two of his brethren ended his reign. Richard Pryor made swearing special, weaving the words Carlin had championed into pointed deconstructions of urban and racial blight. As he was mining that material, the aforementioned Wild and Crazy Guy turned stand-up into rock and roll, relying on visual gags and over-intellectualized non-sequitors to redefine the artforms approach. By the end of the Me Decade, Carlin was seen as a hold over, a famous face from a bygone era given time by those entities - cable, concerts - that could still accommodate his firebrand ballsy takes. It didn’t help matter that in 1976 he went into a five year self imposed exile, rarely seen outside the burgeoning vistas of HBO.

Oddly enough, Carlin couldn’t translate what he did best into any other medium aside from albums and TV variety. Film often saw him floundering, minor rolls in Car Wash and Americathon trading more on his grizzled groovy looks than anything remotely resembling character. In the ‘80s, his turn as Rufus, the time traveling guru to Valley dorks Bill and Ted brought the comedian back into the limelight, yet he never could capitalize on the fame those two films offered. Kevin Smith, a longtime fan, found room for him in Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Jersey Girl, but by the new millennium, Carlin had given up on the movies, only managing a few prime cartoon voice-over gigs (Cars, Happily N’Ever After) before turning in his cinematic credentials.

He also couldn’t make a go of tradition television humor. His one and only stab at a sitcom, 1994’s self-named series, lasted 27 episodes. Set in a bar and featuring Carlin as a taxi driver, it tried to incorporate the comic’s wicked observations within a classic storyline setting. It didn’t work. Oddly enough, he did find fortune in children’s domain. From 1991 to 1998, he was the American narrator of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine series from Britain. He parlayed that stint into a similar bit as Mr. Conductor, overseer of the Shining Time Station (he took over for another ‘60s icon, The Beatles’ Ringo Starr). Between regular cable specials and a few literary collections (Carlin published five books of his material overall), he was never completely out of the picture. 

His personal life, however, was a well guarded reality. He married Brenda Hosbrook in 1961, and the couple had a daughter together, Kelly. In 1997, his wife succumbed to cancer. After nearly 36 years of marriage, Carlin was again single. While he loved to maintain a rock and roll persona onstage, few knew that the comedian was secretly battling several addictions. By 2004, he could no longer control his problems, and quietly checked into rehab. Last week, complaining of chest pains, he entered St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. A victim of several previous heart attacks, Carlin died a short time later.

For many of us tuned into his marauding mindset thirty plus years ago, the loss of George Carlin physically means very little. It’s devastating, but when you can recite, verbatim, the entire riff regarding ‘Special Dispensation: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo’ (“Purgatory is for un-baptized babies because…it wasn’t their fault”) or the scientific facts regarding the artificial fart under the arm (otherwise known as the “bilabial fricative”), it’s clear where Carlin’s legacy lies. He questioned religion in ways that few in the era would even approach (it sailed smack dab in the middle of the Jesus Christ Superstar sentiment) and brought profanity to the fore in a mannerism that future stand-ups took for granted.

Now he’s gone, though clearly not forgotten - and there are some fans who followed him all throughout his rollercoaster career. They never gave up on his confrontational cynicism, embraced his attacks on authority, and held onto the belief that, in a world filled with frivolous, superficial humorists, Carlin was smart, articulate, and continually cutting edge. He will be missed, but more importantly, he will be remembered, especially by an age group that discovered the truth about the world (and how it worked) through his caustic, creative views. He was a man obsessed with words, and it will be words that best manage his lasting myth.

by Rob Horning

23 Jun 2008

This was a predictable development: People (music snobs, mainly, I’m guessing) are starting to buy vinyl albums again, despite the ubiquity of low- to no-cost MP3s. Some of these folks may have the kind of hi-fi setups necessary to take advantage of the higher audio fidelity of vinyl, but I think a fixation on sound quality is secondary. The appeal is likely in the thrill of physical ownership, of having a cultural object that gets personalized, acquires a patina, through one’s personal pattern of usage. It becomes something that can’t be duplicated, and digitization has made all such unduplicatables rarer and therefore more valuable to us.

There is also a totemistic appeal to albums. I can remember sitting in people’s dorm rooms listening to records, staring at the covers, held in thrall by the object itself. And the ritual of picking a record to play from a shelf of by flipping through records in a box simply conjures an entirely different feeling than selecting it from what’s essentially a spreadsheet. The article notes “Whether it’s inspecting a needle for dust or flipping the record over at the end of a side, LPs demand attention. And for a small but growing group, those demands aren’t a nuisance.” These may be the sort of voluntary limits we impose on our cultural consumption to make it more managable, to keep the avalanche of digital culture from burying us.

(Via PSFK)

by Jason Gross

23 Jun 2008

As a tech-head, I can’t resist the blissful imagination of articles like this one from PBS where they consider the idea of a Technological Sabbath for all of us to take.  For anyone else who is wired to the Net day and night, there’s definitely some appeal in such an idea.  When I go on vacation, if a cyber-cafe is around and it’s not too expensive, I admit that I go check my mail and news for a 1/2 hour or so- that’s not too bad, right?  But similarly, if I go with my friends to a cabin that’s far from any Net access, I don’t go through withdrawal if I’m not online- I just dread coming home and going through 100’s of messages, trying to sort out what’s trash and what I want to read.  Part of the problem for us overwired folks is that too much of our lives take place online, making it more difficult to disconnect.  As much as we may curse and complain about the Net, the fact still is that we’re heavily invested in it in many ways- we have a lot of friends and family that we connect with and a lot of work that we do online only.

The problem with trying to disconnect, even temporarily, is that technology is constantly chasing after you, looking to permeate your non-Net world.  It isn’t just that TV’s are becoming more and more wired (as explained in this recent Broadcasting Cable article) but also that we ourselves are spending more time online watching videos and less time with our ol’ TV sets as explained in these articles from Variety and Times Online.  ADDENDA: as is typical with the Net now, even though eyeballs are migrating online, as this excellent SF Gate story explains, there’s still confusion about how to make money there.

Add to that the cell phone companies that are trying to cram more and more music and video content into their products and there’s no escaping it- all forms of media are ready to take with you everywhere and anywhere (and we’re not just talking about iPhone either but also every other provider, especially Verizon).  And how much are we going to resist the temptation with the Net being portable?  Bored for a minute?  Want to find some info quick?  How easy it is to whip out a phone and just look up everything. 

I don’t think it’s necessarily for the worse though.  Not just the boredom factor but also the ability to look up useful info (weather, locations, events) is something that we all have a need for at some time or another.  The thing I wonder about is how it’s going to change our lives if we’re always wired and connected.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist who’ll tell you that da man is going to be able to track us but I do think there’s gotta be some implications about how it will effect us socially on a personal and societal level.  Lots of room for head scratching here but it’ll definitely be interesting to see how this pans out.

Back to the idea of the tech sabbath though… It’s a good idea in theory but it’ll be harder and harder to do obviously.  I do think we all need a break from our small screens every now and then throughout the day just so we don’t go loopy and our eyes don’t bug outta our heads.  A tech break is definitely warranted through the day and necessary, not to mention more realistic.

by tjmHolden

23 Jun 2008

In general, it is a good policy not to generalize. To talk about what is typical or normal or usual; it is best to avoid harping on the average, predictable, foreseeable or calculable. Life being so full of ferries whose engines stall then, in the face of unexpected typhoons, capsize, killing 600, or earthquakes that unleash a cascade of boulders down hillsides that crush the lone fisherman who happened to have risen at 4:43 a.m. in order to seek out that precise spot after a year and a half of Sundays angling to claim it ahead of any other angler.

Life being unpredictable; un-reasonable; never twice quite like that; always and forever and infinitely distinct.

So, when I say that I sat in a typical sushi-ya when I visited Tokyo the other night, we share understanding, right?: there probably was nothing typical about it, nothing from which we would be able to generalize about human experience. It was what it was – nothing more or less – all things being equal (although they rarely are). It just happened to be a place serving sushi, around that particular corner, near Meguro station, in Tokyo, that particular moment that I happened to be hungry, with that random group of friends and acquaintances, that certain Saturday night.


by Sean Murphy

23 Jun 2008

How many people who would care to quibble that John Belushi’s endlessly quotable turn as “Bluto” Blutarsky does not represent his finest work? Not me. And yet, he had to be Blutarski; he needed to be Blutarski. He was Blutarski. Just like he was the Samurai, The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave, and the cheeseburger-dispensing counter jockey at the Olympia Café, among many other unforgettable characters he embodied. Belushi was not a black man. And, in truth, he didn’t even play one on TV. He played a white man emulating a black man, first as a Bee, eventually as a brother—a Blues Brother. Enter “Joliet” Jake Blues who, along with Elwood, had the chutzpah, or brilliance—or both—to step behind the mic for real and record music.

Best known for the movie they made, a kitchen-sink comedy that, despite it’s shoehorned, yet incredible, cameos by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker, remains hilarious and retains a strong quote-quotient. Less known is the fact that, in addition to the movie soundtrack, they made two other albums. Impossible as it seems, the first one (1978’s Briefcase Full of Blues) went to the top of the charts, fueled by their cover of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man”. So, 30 years later, how do we assess this brief body of work? First and foremost, the only thing that prevents it from being the most ill-fated, vainglorious and embarrassingly ego-driven debacle of all time is the simple fact that Belushi really meant it. He cared, and however he did it—ability or acting, or most likely, both—he pulled it off.

It only takes a cursory glance at the tracks the band covered to see where they were coming from: not a ton of obvious “hits” there, aside from the aforementioned “Soul Man” (which still was—and remains—a shockingly unpredictable success for mainstream radio during the height of the disco era!), and the rather pedestrian “Gimme Some Lovin’” (which, incidentally, is a rather pedestrian and pallid song in the first place). Of course, it also didn’t hurt that Belushi had the best working blues band in the world behind him, featuring Steve “The Colonel” Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn (of Booker T. & The MGs—the Stax band that played on some of the original tunes being covered). It was, in short, a dream band, and it would be a travesty of the highest order for Belushi—or anyone—to make a mockery (intentionally or not) of the proceedings. Fortunately, this possibility was avoided for one single, simple reason: it works.

(Sidenote: even if it hadn’t worked, it speaks volumes about Belushi’s character and his 33 1/3 street cred that he knew very well the caliber of men he was lucky enough to be associated with. Likewise, they were lucky too, since Joliet Jake bent over backward to give them ample time in the spotlight: this was a win/win in the sense that the paychecks couldn’t have hurt, and it was exposing the great music these men had made—and continued to make—to an entirely new audience. In the end, if the worst crime he committed was getting some generally unsung heroes some well-earned time in the sun, and turning some of the world on to some essential music, then Belushi acquitted himself quite nicely here.)

The first one was the best. While the movie soundtrack and Made in America are okay, Briefcase Full of Blues remains an album that can be returned to often and with considerable satisfaction. Forget the movie, and SNL, and the outfits: on an album it’s just the voices and the music, with no shtick to save you. And to oblige the predictable protests of those most cynical purists, even if it is acknowledged that Belushi was, in effect, acting as a blues singer, it remains his most challenging, and convincing role. Or put in more realistic perspective, he is, obviously, acting, but it’s a role—and a world—he is more than casually acquainted with. After all: even white boys get the blues. Think Belushi didn’t know a thing or two about the blues? Think about the other super-sized SNL alum, the wealthy and much-loved Chris Farley. Think either of these men had those voracious appetites for destruction because they were unreservedly happy?

Consider the last song on side one, “Shotgun Blues”: even though this song is a showcase for Matt “Guitar” Murphy, it is a tour de force all around, from Steve Jordan’s explosive drums to Aykroyd—I mean Elwood’s surprisingly effective harmonica and especially the vocals (singing lyrics that are especially painful to hear considering Belushi’s not-too-distant death). In fact, if you pulled Belushi’s vocals and had the exact same track with Junior Wells (circa 1978, or 1958 for that matter) singing, it might come close to miraculous. And speaking of Junior, the band’s take on “Messin’ with the Kid” presumably inspired some folks to seek out the real deal. Again, that too would justify the entire endeavor. In the end, you can see it with your ears: Joliet Jake was, in more ways than one, the role of John Belushi’s life.

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