This morning comes the news that George Carlin died yesterday.
Carlin brought the smart-and-funny to the cultural revolution in the early ‘70s, evolving from a clever, square suit-and-tie comedian in the Ed Sullivan stable into a quietly revolutionary long-hair-and-jeans rapper (as in “hey, man, let’s rap”) - pretty ironic since one of his greatest bits as a square was "The Hippy-Dippy Weatherman". His ability to discuss the life-style changes going on in the country during and after Vietnam had a great impact on the national discussion generally and on my young life in particular.
I was somewhat aware of Carlin’s new shtick when I showed up at the old old Main Stage (before the giant yellow tits, even) at one of the first Summerfests in 1972. He was headlining (contest: name the other three acts also on the bill that night) and he was right at the height of his “hey, man, didya ever notice” stage. He was out there, just rapping to 50,000 of his friends. None of us thought anything of it when he started the glorious riff on the Seven Words, but there was a sense of nervousness on the stage when Carlin’s wife suddenly walked over to him on the giant stage, supposedly to give him some water. Legend has it that she was actually there to tell him the police were waiting in the wings to, er, discuss the little matter of him sending vulgar words echoing off the buildings of downtown Milwaukee. Carlin took it all in and it definitely messed with his rhythm late in the set. He then called her out again and had an important message for her – go in the dressing room and ditch the pot.
After his arrest that night, Carlin gained national attention and street cred and Milwaukee looked like a silly, puritanical backwater. Both deserved it. After that, I was a huge Carlin fan, wearing the vinyl off of the Class Clown album. Around that time, when he appeared at the Riverside Theater in downtown Milwaukee, a friend of mine and I hung around in the back stage alley, drinking Brass Monkey and listening to him (and opening guitarist Kenny Rankin) through a slightly open door (try doing something like that these days).
Carlin spent the rest of his career pushing boundaries on subjects like religion, drugs, language and politics, although I can’t recall him getting very specific on any particular politician. But he didn’t have to. His revolution was in recognizing the diversity of lifestyle and the silliness of efforts to put restraints on anyone’s personal liberty. We all knew who was on what side - he didn't have to hit you over the head with it, and he didn't.
I last saw him about five years ago. He had definitely lost a step and, on some subjects, he was downright cranky. In his later career, he would be very up-front with his audience and he was that night: he was prepping for his annual HBO show and was just trying some things out on us, as he read from notes. It was Carlin, alright, but not the full-Carlin.
It is just a coincidence, I suppose, that just a couple of nights ago, I was channel-flipping and found an early Carlin HBO special (George Carlin Again!) and watched it all the way through. It was Carlin at his peak, working in the round, joyful, mugging, almost dancing, expanding on the Seven Words (adding three). Wow, I thought, that guy was good!
Yes, he was.