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I was seven when George Carlin’s “Class Clown” came out. I remember being at a party at the Picetti’s house and being sent to another room with the rest of the kids while the adults listened to the album in the living room. The next weekend, my older brother procured the LP at Tower in San Francisco (a fact that raised a few parental eyebrows) and within a few weeks I had the whole thing memorized. There was something about his intonation and rhythm that made it like memorizing a song for me. All these years later I can jump to any part of the record in my mind and do it word for word. Interestingly, I bought a record that day myself – Johnny Cash at San Quentin. It was the first music I ever bought on my own, and I committed that to memory too .. not just the songs, but every bit of dialogue in between. It would be easy to hang this memorization trick on some sort of fascination with early vinyl impressions, but it was much more than this. To this day I’d assert that there’s something special in those two recordings.

Class Clown presents Carlin at a potent juncture: He’s at the top of his game after honing his talents with his earlier, more conventional act, and he has the energy of a man unchained and venturing into riskier territory. There’s a political element to his material, but he never descends into blatant posturing. Instead he focuses on universal and semi universal curiosities; language in particular. On a later album he muses about the expression “at any rate.” ‘At any rate‘ .. what does that mean? And then in another voice: what about four and a half percent? He seemed attuned to the idea that, if we can’t trust the basic building blocks of communication, how can we put much weight in anything? And indeed, as he got older his humor became darker and defiantly fatalistic.There seemed to be a more antagonizing motivation behind his shtick – he became less concerned with eliciting laughter and more focused on driving home the realization that we’re all screwed.

My friend Heather sent me the preface to Carlin’s 1997 book “Brain Droppings” in acknowledgment of his death yesterday. For anyone interested, it can be found here. He makes some valid points and edges into some areas that, frankly, hit a bit too close to home with me. I prefer to remember him a decade or so past his prime but before this dark period, when he was still musing about such things as the flame thrower. As Bob Dylan might have put it, it wasn’t dark yet but he was getting there. (6.24.08)

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