Laughing Matters: George Carlin, Class Clown

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

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It’s not accurate to call the nineteen-seventies the heyday of comedy records, not when the prior decade saw the smash-hit album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, elevating a guy who’d recently been a Chicago advertising drone to both Best New Artist and Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. That doesn’t even get into the likes of Vaughn Meader and Allan Sherman tying up the top spot on the Billboard album charts for weeks at a time.

But comedy albums remained a very viable product in the Me Decade. From my perspective as a wee fellow trekking through my single-digit ages, comedy albums were a mark of adulthood. When I was dragged along as a necessary but largely ignored accessory at adult parties, I stealthily took note that there always seemed to be point when the chatter died down a bit and the room was turned over to a comedy record dropped onto the turntable. Usually the host — or, rarely, person who brought the record along — got to enjoy some transferred comedic glory, as if they were the one delivering the jokes.

A few years later, when I was finally buying my own records, that association between adulthood and comedy albums lingered. While my peers were devoting their music-purchasing pennies exclusively to whatever bands seemed cool at the moment — well, and Weird “Al” Yankovic, who occupied his own rare and prime place on the music world firmament — I made sure a portion of my modest budget went towards recordings of stand-up masters. That means one of the very first albums I bought with my own dollars was George Carlin’s Class Clown.

Released in 1972, the album is especially significant because of the inclusion of the routine that prompted me to pick this over other options: “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Two months before the album hit stores, Carlin was famously — or infamously, perhaps — arrested at Milwaukee’s Summerfest for performing the bit, and six years later it stood a key evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, prompted by a complaint about a DJ playing it on air. I didn’t really know all that when I bought the record. In the manner of the early teen boy I was, I just took pure delight in Carlin spending so much time talking about dirty words.

Now I can appreciate the levels of characteristic brilliance Carlin brings to it, including sly shots at ridiculous social mores, explication of the frailties of language, and the expert mix of bawdy and intellectual observations. Carlin delivered greater, more philosophically imposing material later in his career — in his inspired final phase — but the material contained on Class Clown still stands as compelling evidence in the argument for Carlin as one of the all-time stand-up greats.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

 

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Now Playing: It Comes at Night

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I feel compelled to write about the audience I was in midst of when I saw the film It Comes at Night. The second feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night is being positioned as a horror film for promotional purposes. That’s entirely fair. All the elements are in place, including a constantly mounting sense of dread, allusions to a devastating and unexplained phenomenon that has ravaged the populace, and a wary appraisal of the intrinsic darkness of desperate people. And yet the film is primarily notable for its colossal restraint more than its vivid shocks. In the movie house where I sat, that led to a lot of agitation and restlessness.

Even as I concede some amount of understanding of the idling disgruntlement of  my fellow ticket-buyers — Shults does occasionally play his narrative hand with more patience than is wholly advisable — the screening mostly served as a sad reminder of the sizable divide between what the typical horror movie fan wants and what the more artistically-inclined genre filmmakers are likely to give them. There is a lot to admire in It Comes at Night, but I found myself depressed by the overall experience

The film largely takes place in a large house, isolated in the middle of the woods. Some sort of highly contagious disease has taken its toll on society, leaving Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their seventeen-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) anxious in their remote homestead. Their precarious feeling of safety is disrupted by the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbot), who breaks into their house, claiming he thought it was abandoned and he was only looking for supplies for his own family that has thus far survived the outbreak.

With cunning psychological insight, Shults lays out the suspicions and tripwire high emotions that the characters have, with any slip in caution potentially leading to a terrible death. At its best, the script delivers scenes that raise doubts but ultimately reveal little. Nearly every potential infraction can be read as an innocent act. It’s a razor thin line between prudence and paranoia.

The pieces of It Comes at Night that the rest of the audience rejected are precisely what make it intriguing and fulfilling for me. Even though the communal experience of being in the movie theater can sometimes elevate a work — something that’s come through most clearly of late with the particular empowerment baked into Hidden Figures and Wonder Woman — my task is to assess what flickers in front of me, not the vibe generated by those seated in my vicinity. It Comes at Night is compelling, sly, and artful. To be fair, the evidence suggests that results may vary.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 34 – 32

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34. Sinéad O’Connor, “Mandinka”

It didn’t start with a picture of the Pope on live television. Sinéad O’Connor was at war from the beginning. “I had no illusions that there were such things as record deals — I just happened to be lucky enough to get one,” O’Connor noted shortly after the release of her 1987 debut album, The Lion and the Cobra. “I didn’t realize there were such bastards in this business.” Her famously shaved head — a look especially out of step with late-eighties fashion trends — was O’Connor’s rebuttal to label attempts to impose a more MTV-friendly style on her. Her dramatically coiffure choice wasn’t a foolproof defense, though. When “Mandinka” was released as the third single from The Lion and the Cobra, adjustments were made to the image that graced the sleeve. “That was the art director in the English record company who decided that a woman should have nice pink lipstick,” O’Connor told Musician. “He decided that in the original photograph the lips were too dry. He went down and asked one of the secretaries in the A&R department if she thought my lips were too dry, and she said, ‘Oh, yes, I do.'” The attempts at post-shoot makeovers didn’t matter to most listeners, who realized that O’Connor was offering something intensely special. As for the meaning behind the song “Mandinka,” O’Connor preferred playing it coy in those days. “Mandinkas are an African tribe,” she said. “They’re mentioned in a book called Roots by Alex Haley, which is what the song is about. In order to understand it, you must read the book.”

 

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33. The Godfathers, “Birth, School, Work, Death”

The Godfathers released their debut album in 1986, but most college radio programmers got their first exposure to the U.K. band when their sophomore release exploded with the perfect song to speak to the romanticized pessimism that is — or least was — endemic to those hovering around the age of twenty. The title of the band’s major label debut, issued in 1988, offered a savagely bleak reduction of the life experience: Birth, School, Work, Death. The album’s title cut also served as its lead single. It featured vocalist Peter Coyne snarling out the individual experiences of the title, surrounded by equally succinct and simple lyrics, such as “And I been high and I been low/ And I don’t know where to go.” It wasn’t exactly deep, but that was the point. The Godfathers were going straight for the gut. “It’s about a feeling rather than a political view,” guitarist Michael Gibson said of the song at the time. “Seeing people in the audience shouting along — they’ve all been through similar things, but to each one of them the song means something different.” Even though it provided a grim recitation of the march through human existence, the latitude within the lyrics gave the song a universality that helped it spread and endure. “‘Birth, School, Work, Death’ has been covered in about seven or eight different languages — French, Spanish, Japanese, Finnish,” Coyne reflected recently.  “All kinds of things have come up as just a result of that one number. I supposed the question in ‘Birth School Work Death’ is ‘Is that all there is to life?’ The answer to that surely is ‘No.’ And then you fill in the dots yourself.”

 

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32. The Screaming Blue Messiahs, “I Wanna Be a Flintstone”

By the time the Screaming Blue Messiahs released their third album, Bikini Red, the veneer of self-seriousness had already hardened around college rock. With the likes of Mojo Nixon and the Dead Milkmen finding spots on left of the dial playlists, there was certainly room for a little mockery, but most bands were supposed to play it straight and intense. That’s how U2 sold a kajillion records, after all. When the Bikini Red first hit, in 1987, Screaming Blue Messiahs band members felt a need to urgently justify one track in particular to the ever-judgmental U.K. music press. “It’s supposed to be funny,” lead singer Bill Carter insisted about the song “I Wanna Be a Flintstone.” There simply weren’t that many rock bands that felt they could hang onto their cool guy reputation while simultaneously delivering a raucous ode to the preeminent modern Stone Age family. “We have a lot of fun, it’s not deadly serious — I don’t think,” Carter continued. “It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek. It’s only music.” Although the song’s eventual and inevitable inclusion on the soundtrack to the 1994 live action film version of The Flintstones undoubtedly makes it the band’s most lucrative track, bassist Chris Thompson and drummer Kenny Harris later groused that releasing the song as a single led to nothing but terrible experiences. “It was one of the biggest mistakes we ever made and we ended up doing Top of the Pops, which was fucking horrible,” they said in a joint interview.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Grizzly Man

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This originally appeared in my former online home. I was still getting back in the swing of writing movie reviews when this posted.

The new film from sorta nuts German director Werner Herzog is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor who spent years in the Alaskan wilderness observing, bonding with, obsessing over and serving as self-proclaimed “protector” of a large group of grizzly bears. An inveterate ham, Treadwell documented his experience with a video camera, shooting hours of footage which Herzog merged with new interviews to give us a potent picture of a damaged individual who sought some level of peace out in the wild, over-identifying with the animals there.

Herzog’s assembly of the material filmed by Treadwell is especially strong. Without seeming to be overly manipulative in his approach, Herzog finds especially telling moments and strings them together in a revelatory way. We discover who Treadwell was and then we discover that the persona was, to a large degree, a conscious construct of Treadwell’s. Sometimes it seems that he’s filming with his own possible documentary or television program in mind, sometimes it’s simply to keep himself company, and sometimes it’s little more than a compulsive act. Throughout, he maintains the version of himself he most wants to be. The facade never seems to fall away.

The new footage generated by Herzog is less successful. The interview subjects generally offer little valuable insight into Treadwell or the Alaskan landscape where he toiled. And the couple of moments in which Herzog is supposedly capturing a genuine moment are hopelessly stiff and awkward. The people on the other end of Herzog’s camera are far too conscious of the fact that they’re being filmed. Perhaps Herzog means that to contrast with Treadwell’s continuous performance, but the scenes are weighed down by their rigidity. The self-construction of Treadwell is fascinating, but when these other individuals try it the movie simply stops dead. They’re just not as skilled at it, it seems. Herzog may be tickled by these scenes of the awkward formality of appearing natural for the camera (his kinship with Errol Morris leads me to believe this), but I just wanted more of Treadwell in the woods, creating a sense of purpose through forcefully believing out loud.

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One for Friday: The Soup Dragons, “One Way Street”

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After I graduated from college and was underway with the slow, sad process of detaching from the student-run radio station, I did the best I could to compensate for no daily exposure to the waterfall of new music that came through the doors. After initially insisting my break would be clean, I eventually signed up for a weekly on-air shift as a community volunteer, and I scoured music magazines with the intensity of a conspiracy theorist looking for the clue that would bring down the menacing shadow government. When I found a song that I believed had similar stuff to the saturation singles that defined my collegiate experience, I fell for it hard.

I was predisposed to like the Soup Dragons when their album Hydrophonic arrived in the spring of 1994. Tracks from their preceding albums loomed large in the playlist that circled endlessly in my memory. So I was prepared to pay attention. Even so, I don’t think I was totally a needy sucker when I decided “One Way Street,” the lead single off of Hydrophonic, was a great song. Adopting a glammy, Stones-styled vibe that I didn’t particularly associate with their earlier music, the track was propulsive and slinky at the same time. In the scruffy comfort of my home, I played the song with the same joyful repetition I might have employed were I still living a life of near-daily radio shifts.

In my recollection, the kids down the road at my former broadcast home didn’t agree with my assessment, or at least they didn’t express consensus on the charts they now set. Hydrophonic and “One Way Street” didn’t do much there. It seemed the Soup Dragons were old news to them. They wanted to find their own bands to champion. And that’s exactly the way it should have been.

Listen or download –> The Soup Dragons, “One Way Street”

(Disclaimer: I haven’t checked to see if Hydrophonic is currently in print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. Nor do I know if this track ended up on a compilation that might make it available in a similar fashion. If there are Soup Dragons releases available in a manner that provides proper compensation to both the artist and the proprietor of the aforementioned brick-and-mortar business, let the sharing of this track to be urging to go out and engage in some commerce rather than a cause to circumvent it. This is a sample, not a replacement. I can attest that every one of the five albums from the Soup Dragons makes for fine summer listening. Although I stand by the preceding sentences, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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The New Releases Shelf: Goths

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(Image credit: the man himself)

I have a lot of affection for the Mountain Goats, but I was disappointed with their last album. Released in 2015, Beat the Champ was a concept album, awash in songwriter John Darnielle’s abiding affection for professional wrestling, and not the kind that takes up hours of national programming hours with intricate stories and flashy production values. Darnielle was writing for the hardscrabble, downscale grapplers who shed blood and sweat (but no tears in this manliest of sports) in half-filled municipal coliseums and on static dappled UHF stations in his younger years.

Much as I appreciate Darnielle’s conviction that absolutely anything is viable inspiration for a deeply emotional rock song, I found Beat the Champ to be a little tedious. The distinctiveness of Darnielle’s songwriting receded, which I attributed to the concept album format.  For a guy who can come up with a tuneful, evocative song about whatever springs to mind, why confine himself to single topic across an album? He’d certainly made thematically unified releases previously — and there were great albums in that number — but locking in so narrowly was too limiting, I figured.

As is often the case when I fall out of alignment with an artist whose work I admire, it turns out the the problem was me, not him. I come to this conclusion because the new Mountain Goats album, Goths, is again a concept album, wound as tightly in its specific subculture as its immediate predecessor. Evidently — and, let’s face it, obviously — I simply needed Darnielle to focus on an insular world that I love as much as he does.

I never had a phase of hair dyed black (it’s most of the way there already frankly) and sullen eyeliner. I have no business truly terming myself a goth, but I have a deep affinity for the ideas that run across the album: of deep connection to bands, of finding freedom and identity in music, of becoming an aged-out discard from a preferred youth culture ahead of a corresponding willingness to abandon it. It about fist-in-the-air rebellion meeting the mellowing of advancing year. Over a jazzy shuffle on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement,” Darnielle sings, “I’m pretty hardcore but I’m not that hardcore.” I know the feeling, and I’ve known it for a good long time now.

Mid-tempo understatement is the default setting of the Goths. Among the pronouncements about the album’s is the promise that there are no guitars, a notable first given that many of the earliest Mountain Goats releases were created with little more than Darnielle, an acoustic guitar, and the boombox he recorded them on (including the clicks as he turned the tape player on and off). The band gets a reasonable amount of mileage out of the discord of lyrics about the gloomy bombast of goth music settled against chilled out, slyly spare tunes. In the right setting, the lyrics of “Wear Black” could carry some menace (“Wear black on your forgotten red heart/ Wear black in the present tense/ Wear black when you come around/ Wear black in your absence”), but that setting isn’t the easy swing of the Mountain Goats version of the Huey Lewis and the News version of Philly soul. The joke might wear thin eventually, but it sounds pretty dang delightful to me right now.

The closest Goths comes to truly evoking the music style it lyrically addresses with wit and insight is on album opener “Rain in Soho,” which come across like the showstopper in a middle school production of the Sisters of Mercy video for “This Corrosion.” Fittingly, that leads into “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds,” which imagines the Sisters of Mercy lead singer living out the black leather pants version of the Thomas Wolfe title You Can’t Go Home Again. Darnielle has always mined culture freely, and Goths namechecks enough specific artists to fill a modest record store. “Stench of the Unburied” paints a perfect picture of a certain sort of weary bliss with the repeated lines “Outside it’s ninety-two degrees/ And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees.”

But the most joyously offbeat example of pulling lyrical details straight from the pages of Trouser Press comes on the album’s last song, “Abandoned Flesh.” Siouxsie Sioux is mentioned again, as is Robert Smith (and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry!), but the bulk of the song is about the band Gene Loves Jezebel. Delivered with the gentlest lounge swagger, the track offers a sympathetic few words to the sort of band that flared brightly but faded out of the canon almost entirely (“They charted once or twice/ They were on a major label/ When the singer went solo/ He left money on the table”). Darnielle’s generosity of spirit infuses the track, rescuing it from any judgment or mockery. As with everything else on Goths, he sings about thus bygone band because they fascinate and energize him. Maybe somewhere in that sentiment is the elusive element I missed on Beat the Champ, but found more easily here, because I knew better how to look for it. Every song is worth writing and singing as long as it is written and sung with love, respect, and purpose. I don’t know how goth that idea is, but it seems like a fine credo to me.

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The Art of the Sell: “Fargo” movie poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

fargo

By the middle of the nineteen-nineties, I was becoming dismayed with the state of movie posters. I have no empirical evidence to offer to prove my theory, but it truly seemed as if attempts at creativity and artfulness were dwindling. There was little evident willingness on the part of studios to bring memorable images to their promotional efforts. Instead, they wanted great big pictures of the movie stars with as little other information as possible. If they were paying twenty million dollars for Jim Carrey, they wanted to be damn sure everybody knew Jim Carrey was in the movie. All other information was incidental.

There were exceptions, of course. Even though much of the promotional campaign around Fargo, the amazing 1996 film from Joel and Ethan Coen, a fairly straightforward image of Marge Gunderson examining a crime scene, there was an official movie poster that got at the film’s uniquely homey brand of lightly blackened comedy. It’s only right that a movie like Fargo has a poster that evidences the same level of cleverness.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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