"Some people think 'cacking out' means to sleep. Nope... you DIE! The big cackeroo..."
- George Carlin, 1976
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You've been warned!
I thought for a long time about what to write after I heard that George Carlin had died last night. I can't think of any other recording comedian, or recording artist of almost any kind, who had quite as big an influence on me, and a lot of other people, as the tall, thin bearded one from White Harlem
. Say what you wanna say, say what you mean, never back off, never mellow out, keep it on the edge. Or over the edge.
But let me take you back to a record player, circa 1976. There were only a couple of places to get LPs in the small town in which I lived in rural western New York... there was a music store for a while, a G.C. Murphy
store, and at the edge of town, a Ben Franklin store. That was where, in 1976, I found copies of several of George Carlin's earlier LPs, and the first one I bought was Occupation: Foole.
And after that, everything I could get hold of.
FM & AM. An Evening With Wally Londo, Featuring Bill Slaszo. Take-Offs and Put-Ons.
And eventually, the infamous 1972 LP, Class Clown
Man, this stuff was explosive. Later, I figured the local Ben Franklin store had them because they didn't know what it was (later, this store was the source of the first records I bought by The Ramones and Elvis Costello). I didn't dare play the records for some of my friends, for fear they'd repeat stuff back to their mothers, and it would come back to hit me in the ass. But I played them just... enough... and pretty soon, all the other 14-year-olds ended up with copies of some of these records and they'd come out at parties if adults weren't around.
Our parents, remember, were more the George Burns, Jackie Gleason or Milton Berle types. In the Sixties the more liberal ones would watch the Smothers Brothers
, till CBS threw them off the air. I doubt even the most liberal parents in our town had ever heard, or even heard of, Lenny Bruce
or Lord Buckley
. If they listened to "adult" comedy records, it would likely be something like Rusty "Knockers Up" Warren
or maybe Redd Foxx. Copies of Vaughn Meader's The First Family
, a satire of the Kennedy White House that at the time was the fastest-selling comedy record of all time, could be had by the basketload at garage sales around the village in the summer, along with The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.
But Carlin was something else.
Nothing he ever said was gratuitous, not once he found his voice. It was never Dice-Clayish, cussing for the sheer shock impact. There was always a lot of thought behind what he had to say, and if he dissected language in ways that made some people get bent out of shape, well, that was their hard time. I used to just roll on the floor gagging and laughing when he talked about how
"...the DOG... is LICKING... his BALLS!!!
And nobody mentions it! Spectacular thing going on here... If I could reach, I'd never leave the house, man..."
To this day, if we discover something unknown in the refrigerator, I utter the phrase, "could be meat, could be cake. I know... it's meatcake!"
The early records are amusing, but don't have the substance of his later stuff. I have a copy of every solo LP he released up until around 1980, and Take-Offs and Put-Ons
is the one I listened to the least, though of course that's the one I pulled out if normal or tight-assed people were around, since it had mostly all his "clean" routines from the early 1960s on it. "Wonderful WINO" is still pretty cool, but the parodies of game-shows and television weather are a little dated now.
I never did the drugs, never wore the jean jackets, never grew a beard, never wore a ponytail, but I understood Carlin from the first time I heard him. The idea of what he was about was pretty much summed up in a line from Occupation: Foole.
"My job is thinking up weird shit. And then I come here and report it."
As a reporter, he had a longer run than Dan Rather. Sold a lot more records, too.
After he did some television and movies in the 1980s and 1990s, I was worried that maybe Carlin was losing it, going commercial and losing that edge. Nope. When I was much more active in the childfree community, and starting to think that nobody really understood how absurd the fetishization of children seemed to have become, it was George Carlin who came to the rescue with 1999's You Are All Diseased
, on a track titled, "Fuck The Children!
If you had a sacred cow, eventually George would get around to milking it and making sociological yogurt with the result.
If Lenny Bruce, Ken Nordine and Lord Buckley were the word-artists of the bop era, Carlin was the word-artist for the stadium rock era. Aptly, he often sold out enormous arenas with his live concerts. I remember how disappointed some friends of mine were when their parents wouldn't let them get tickets for a performance of his at Kleinhan's Music Hall in Buffalo in 1976. He just had the vibe, the wide-open, this-is-our-voice approach that if it were music, would have been somewhere between ZZTop and The Ramones.
led to a 1978 Supreme Court decision upholding the right of FCC to ban stations from playing "obscene" material during hours when children might be listening (which, when I was 14, was practically any time of the day or night), but it also really opened the door for guys like Steve Martin and Richard Pryor, and of course later, Chris Rock, Andrew Dice Clay, and eventually Howard Stern, to say nearly anything they wanted to in other venues. Cable television and satellite radio really couldn't have approached this sort of material without the decision in Carlin
laying down the boundaries. Just as George owed a lot of his approach and impact to the pioneer, Lenny Bruce, dozens or maybe hundreds of comedians and performers since owe their opportunities to George for kicking the doors down 35 years ago and selling a butt-load of records, tickets, and HBO subscriptions back then.
And now he's gone. I guess I'd been worried about him for some years, because I knew how old he was getting and I figured all that coke and weed and alcohol back in the days can't have been particularly conducive to long life, but it really just came down to his heart, and of course, that was always at the center of him anyway. If he sounded mean, you didn't understand him. If he sounded brash, you just had a problematic point of view that could use some shaking-up. If you thought he was anti-everything, you hadn't paid attention. This was a guy who knew and understood how people think, work, and feel, and wasn't above probing around in the dark crevices to pull something out for examination.
Now he's gone off to that ultimate dark crevice, I guess. The Big Cackeroo.
But I'm guessing the loud echoes of his life will still be bouncing off the walls when I go there, too.