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God Bless the Oddballs

“Sleep late down South, look up my former mentors
 Live off Yankee winters, be a landlord and a renter” – Tom Petty

Rip Torn is gone. The news blips in on my text message exchange with Miller. Rip defined a particular VHS playback chunk of my 4304A days back on 23rd Street in Noe Valley. The Larry Sanders Show was in my wheelhouse, so to speak .. like saying I’ve seen Goodfellas a few times. There are  productions that impress as a whole, and within that select group fewer that can be stripped down to their minimalist parts. A line here, an expression there. Such was Torn’s effect on (and affect in) Garry Shandling’s 1990’s masterpiece ensemble. Nevermind the comedy that constituted the bulk of the show. Torn could deliver raw pathos with a pained grin and carry entire episodes as he did in 1995’s “Arthur After Hours.” He was a consummate line-blurrer, a real-life drinker who could convey the same brilliantly on screen. “Sanders” was funny because it was about serious stuff — about vanity, and ego, and the damage of self-love. You can’t laugh like that without involving some hurt, and that hurt was always on Rip’s face. His “real life” exploits were more legendary than the screen performances. For a certain post-Sanders stretch it wasn’t uncommon to read about him being extracted from his car, from inside a Connecticut bank lobby, where he’d crashed through after hours, bottle in one hand and gun in the other. The man had a particular flair.

So yeah, God Bless the oddballs indeed. Rip Torn’s passing comes on the heels of my seeing yet another brilliant non conformist perform for the umpteenth time in recent months. What makes a man stop over in a Sacramento hotel for one night, the day after the Fourth of July and following a week by the Tahoe shores, to catch another man in a giant cowboy hat crooning Merle Haggard covers? Not sure, but it’s got something to do with that Rip Torn elusiveness. Dwight Yoakam is, to use an overused word, an enigma. Never has one possessed such an affinity for talking while revealing next to nothing about himself. He is, in one sense, an ageing sex symbol on stage in tight jeans still evoking female squeals with each leg twist. And in another breath he’s a balding, paunchy, brilliant character actor who could perhaps have had Torn’s career had he not been so hugely multi-talented. Add to that a phenomenal songwriting sense, fiery past romances with Hollywood starlets, and a particular mercurial bent that sees him both fawning over his loyal following and eyeing his guitar technician with a look that could kill after being handed a mis-tuned Martin. It’s hard to look away for fear you’ll miss something. He was late to the Crest Theater stage in Sacramento, laying the blame on ‘technical difficulties’ and news that a 7.1 earthquake had just shook his home base in Los Angeles. And then he did some shaking himself to a packed if relatively small venue. Why would a guy, worth $45 million according to the Internet, choose to spend his days touring the country by bus blasting tunes to intimate crowds, after having sold 25 million records? You’d have to ask him, and still run the risk of having no answer many words and hours on.

It isn’t lost on me that both these guys share southern roots, albeit from different areas of the country (Rip was from Texas and Dwight from Kentucky.) I don’t have many Kentucky references not involving bourbon, but when I think of Texas I think of my Uncle Marvin. He shared my same July 6 birthday, occasionally wore a Stetson and rode a motorcycle, and would look at me with a particular grin and say “shidddddd Riggy ..” or “gall-damn you, Rick, you are one funny nephew ..” Once, at my dad’s country place in Geyserville, California, Uncle Marv observed my father struggling with an ant problem on the back 40. Many thousands of the angry, biting creatures were spilling over from numerous hills that had sprung up in the vegetable garden. When my father’s more conventional methods failed to curb the situation, Marvin retreated to the garage and came back with a large gasoline can, poured it out over the colonies and set them on fire with a match. My dad, a city boy, was taken aback by the raw carnage and multitudes of inflamed ants curling crispy and reaching skyward in vain. “Well shit Dick,” Uncle Marv reasoned, “it’s either you or them ..” He was a big country music fan, as would be expected, and I made him mixtapes bridging the gap between Yoakam and Johnny Cash. One time I recited all the words to Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” for him in a single sitting, to his great amusement. No great trick for me, but worth the merit points with Uncle Marvin.

Johnny Cash’s people were from Scotland, not far from where my mother grew up. So you see, it all fits together. Something is calling me toward a tour of the South. It’s as ill-defined in my head as a Dwight Yoakam personality sketch, but I’m thinking of flying in and renting a car. Maybe a modern-day equivalent of Bo and Luke Duke’s ’69 Charger .. but this remains to be seen. Somewhere between states I’ll lift a glass to Rip Torn and Uncle Marvin. This seems like plenty to go on for me.

Like Airplane Lights

“Hey Baby, what’s in your eyes?” – Jagger / Richards


When you get to be my age, or somewhere thereabout, you tend to question where you are. This holds particularly true if you’ve left the house to get there. And in rare instances, you actually get an answer. Such was my circumstance last Friday night, 2,129 miles from home, when Keith Richards took center stage at Chicago’s Soldier Field and played “You Got The Silver.”

I hadn’t given much thought to signing up to see the Stones play; it was something to do in Chicago besides Gibson’s steakhouse and Wrigley Field. The only way to do a ‘stadium show’ at my age is to not think about it. So it barely registered when Mick Jagger’s heart valve operation was scheduled for April. The show was off, sure, but such things happen with a 75 year-old man. My interest did peak a few weeks later, seeing Mick up, about and dancing around his studio, announcing that the tour was back on as planned. Good genes, a life-long workout regimen, and keeping your fighting weight at eighty pounds still goes a long way. But I (“ME” with John C. Spears emphasis) still had to get there. Give a man a purpose and he’s good to go at any age .. this explained Jagger’s prance, apparently invincible ticker, and unwavering summer plans. But he had a date with 61,000 where I had one with American Airlines, post shoe-bomber security and numerous Uber drivers.

To be fair, I was staying at the Four Seasons, and as with most other circumstances in my life, had nothing to bitch about. But as Bill Wyman once said, hell is other people, and most of them were heading for Soldier Field last Friday night. I’d seen the Stones play twice before — in 2002 and 1981 — and remembered from the later date that they’d grown into these large-scale performances, making fine use of advances in big screen technology and sound. There’s never been any debate with me over who’s the World’s Greatest Rock n Roll band. I’ve always maintained severe indifference for the Beatles despite being isolated in this opinion. “I Am The Walrus” and “Dear Prudence” never cut it for me. And one fact stands unchallenged: a ‘band’ has to stick and play together. Jagger, Watts and Richards have been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive.

So yeah, cut to the chase, I was there standing among the multitudes as the lights went down and music went up. They were more than good and locked in and strong in vocals and chops. And Charlie Watts — Charlie friggin’ Watts — was keeping that same solid back beat at 78 years of age, looking relaxed and fit and healthy and offering bemused grins for his noodle-limbed singer covering the massive stage like he was 30. Then it was Keith’s turn.

Keith Richards loves the blues .. this is undisputed fact. And he picked the right music to love as his fingers gnarled and the crevices in his face deepened to Arizona Tourism Board proportion. Where it’s hard to maintain that Springsteen faux earnestness as years rocket by, simple chords and simple music can actually age well. At least it’s been true for Keith, whose version of Jagger’s daily workouts and health regimen seems to have been heroin, cigarettes and falling out of coconut trees. And that’s when it hit me at Soldier Field, listening to the thunderous applause as he approached the spotlight in subdued fashion. Yeah, I’ve seen my share of age and death in recent years, but he’s still here and I’m here to see him. On opening night. In Chicago.

All that was necessary were those two-fingered open chords, Keith’s voice, and the heart of someone loving what he does. Oh, and a little slide guitar from Ronnie Wood, who seems to have a line not only on the good drugs at 72, but the good Minoxidil. They did it again. It wasn’t just some superficial gesture, dragging my ass out there to watch them play. It was an excellent show and one I’ll be forever glad for having attended. Coo coo ca choo.


Old Chunk Of Coal

Been getting by on song lyrics of late, perhaps in deference to my mother, but also because it’s just what I seem to do in stretches like this. “Old Chunk Of Coal” is Billy Joe Shaver — perhaps the best uncredited songwriter of the last forty years. Not sure what defines good writing, but it’s found in the following:

I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow til I’m so blue-perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day
Lest I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now, Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day

A hymn to redemption right there and if it all seems free and easy, well good for you. Billy Joe is good buddies with Norm Macdonald and appeared on his short-lived Netflix talk show. Norm noted the use of “chunk” (of coal) as opposed to the more common “lump.” Don’t blink and miss it. Perhaps the difference between knowing and missing God entirely, depending on how you cut your coal.

Up here in Tahoe, one feels closer to these things. At least I do. “Getting away” may be the order of the day, but is increasingly difficult for an old chunk of coal like me. Some recommend going where one has no attachment. But I figure it a personal thing, like lyrics. Sometimes you need to connect to the past in order to let go. I knew a woman who commented on my habit of moving from bed to couch early morning to facilitate sleep. “Trying to get away from yourself” she reckoned. The great Kelly Neese put that in perspective for me with “what a crock of shit.”

Thought I had more than I did .. guess that’s why you keep playing Billy Joe Shaver sometimes. And bringing logs in for the fire to fend off the late-May snow. Some winters last longer than others.

Dirty Harry, The Mule, and Pauline Kael

I just got done watching Clint Eastwood’s latest, “The Mule,” and enjoyed it thoroughly. Enjoyed it thoroughly for many of the same reasons I enjoy Eastwood (and by extension, the character he plays.) He’s flawed, but he keeps going. There is no way to watch an 88 year-old American film icon on screen minus the autobiographical overtones. At minimum, he will be portraying every one of those 88 years, and that puts him in select company. There’s a scene where, as an inconspicuous drug runner for the Mexican cartel, he comes across a group of lesbian motorcyclists having engine trouble. He calls them “gals” or similar and they correct him .. “Hey man, we’re Dykes on Bikes!” It feels like something lifted straight out of “Every Which Way But Loose” or the 1978 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. Having noted that he once had the same motorcycle and the problem is likely with the starter, he bids them adieu with a cheerful “Bye, Dykes!”

Reading a few online reviews for the film, I wasn’t surprised to see it being called “lazy” and “racist.” The “lazy” part seems most ironic, given Clint’s age and what passes for film criticism these days. (Granted several of these self-appointed critics were merely holders of a Twitter account.) But the “racist” part (and by extension the ubiquitous “homophobic”) is curious and only applicable if you assume Eastwood only ever plays Eastwood. Even by that definition, you’d have to presume to know his intentions as an actor and director (not to mention one in his late eighties with a huge body of work behind him.) He’s portraying a dinosaur in this film — a flawed but well-intentioned dinosaur — so even if there is an autobiographical element it isn’t being applied with malice or a lack of self-awareness. There’s nothing particularly damning about him using their preferred nomenclature with his parting line (“Bye, Dykes!”) .. in fact, he’s merely calling them what they’ve asked to be called. The scene feels flawed merely because it’s so ‘retro’ and out of step with anything that might pass for current times.

There’s a similar scene that’s been criticized involving a family of black motorists whom he calls “negroes” and then cheerfully replies “no shit?’ when informed that they prefer ‘black’ or just ‘people.’ The point here isn’t that he should be allowed to call people whatever pleases him, but rather that he’s out of step and means no harm. As with the lesbian scene, its greatest flaw is using a rather dated reference in a supposedly ‘modern’ movie. It would be a stretch to claim that Eastwood is doing this purposefully and self-consciously to make a point (autobiographically or otherwise.) In any case that’s another essay and, instead, I’d like to use the idea as a segue into talking about Pauline Kael.

Kael was the preeminent film critic of her time and at the peak of her powers when Eastwood starred in perhaps his most iconic role, as Detective Harry Callahan in the Don Siegel film “Dirty Harry.” Kael was the first (or at least the most noted) to apply the tag “fascist” to the film. She branded the work as “deeply immoral” while conceding that “it would be stupid to deny that ‘Dirty Harry’ is a stunningly well-made genre piece.” She goes on to make a very particular distinction between “turning an audience on” and “art.” : “Turning on an audience is a function of motor excitation that is not identical with art (though there is an overlap); if it were, the greatest artists would be those who gave us heart attacks ..” It’s a fantastic piece of writing, unlike most anything you’d find today, and the scope of her criticism is both broad yet specific and compelling. It was perhaps the beginning of a more colloquial understanding of “fascism” as the word has come to be applied in this country, and there’s definitely a specific argument to be made there. But far more interesting is her nuanced take on what defines ‘art.’ I won’t touch that, at least not for now.

Kael was from San Francisco, my current home city and that of Detective Harry Callahan. “I grew up in San Francisco,” she writes, “and one of the soundest pieces of folk wisdom my mother ever gave me was ‘if you’re ever in trouble, don’t go to the cops.‘ ” As with a lot of good folk-wisdom, it only works on a specific level. There is a certain kind of trouble for which the only person you’d be able to turn to is a cop. And, by vocational necessity, this dictates many of the flawed attributes Kael’s mother seemed to be implying. Does she have a point? Of course she does. Does it cover everything? Certainly not. San Francisco is perhaps the American epicenter for the loose application of “fascist” and distrust of cops. (Though the city is changing so rapidly at present this may be a dated stereotype.) It’s also the epicenter for human feces on sidewalks and in public spaces. Make of this what you will.

I’m too lazy to get into these broader arguments here (which is all the more reason for my being impressed with Clint Eastwood still going at 88.) I’ve been churning out these mostly spontaneous and lightly-researched pieces on this blog for many years, and the best I can claim is that my stance on most of these matters hasn’t changed much in that time. I’ve always liked Clint Eastwood, San Francisco, good writing, and a reasonably conservative bent on most things. Whether this qualifies me as “fascist” or not I’m uncertain. But at least it isn’t something that’s crept upon me in old age. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to bid farewell to a group of lesbian motorcyclists.

I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before
Never been so easy or so slow
I’ve been shooting in the dark too long
When somethin’s not right it’s wrong
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It always has hit me from below
But this time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Purple clover, Queen Anne lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of
You might be spoilin’ me too much love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever
And never realize the time

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All them scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’
Stayin’ far behind without you
You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to

I’ll look for you in old Honolul-a
San Francisco, Ashtabula
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go


Ilka Joy and Treasure

I wouldn’t touch this under normal circumstances — trying to write something about my mother now and do her justice. But we had the services Friday and I did write and read a eulogy. It was a nice day; a pause in what’s been weeks of rain. She told me once that she’d like a piper to play and I was able to make that happen .. a young auburn-haired, kilted lass who reminded me of her. And the reverend read Burns’ “Ae Fond Kiss” at graveside and at my suggestion. Somebody bought me a book some years back and outlined that one. I could have chosen worse. It was a beautiful ceremony and I don’t toss such words around. But like I say, words will fail me for a long while with this one. I did, however, manage to string these together and then read them in front of the assembled crowd:

Some of you have heard this story. It was about five years back and Mom had just suffered another in a series of interminable falls, hospital stays with delirium and long stints in the cardiac unit, a month of physical rehabilitation and other complications at Kindred in San Rafael .. all par for the course. I was at the end of my rope and had contacted Lynn and Leslie at Eldercare, which would eventually lead to meeting Marilyn and a significant change for the better.

But she was happy this day in a way that defied odds and defined her spirit. We’d been to the orthopedist and seen an x-ray of her lower body that displayed enough pins and rods to construct a go-kart. Rob said it looked like something from a ‘Ren and Stimpy’ cartoon. And we’d finished getting blood tests at Marin General where we’d run into an ex girlfriend of mine there with her in-laws and at her father in law’s deathbed.

“How’s he doing?” I asked, and the solemn answer came back that he was near the end and with the priest in his hospital room.  “Ooh,” my mother queried, “Don’t they trust the doctors?” There were intense stares all around as she smiled obliviously. So I excused us and shuffled her away with her walker. When we got to the parking lot I asked “Mom, why would you say that?” and she replied “what did I say?” I said “they told you he was with the priest and you asked if they trusted the doctors.”

Priest?” she said .. “I thought they said he was with the police.”

Helen Davis Monaco was born to Agnes and John Moncrieff, March 1, 1935, in Perth, Scotland. At the time she attended school, Scottish education was regarded as among the best in the world. From age five all children were schooled together until streamed, at age eleven, towards an academic or trade-oriented education according to their abilities. This segregation took place on the basis of an examination the final year of primary school. She did so well in those exams that she was awarded the title of “Dux,” or top student in academics and all-around merit. This honor led her straight to Perth Academy where, the records show, she continued to excel.

In 1952 she moved to London and worked for the Foreign Office, eventually being transferred to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. And in 1958 she made it to American Airlines Flight Academy in Dallas/Ft Worth, before being stationed as a stewardess in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After a year of flying she landed in San Francisco, got a small Tenderloin apartment at 525 O’Farrell Street, and was hired by my grandfather Dan at Monaco Labs. Dan would soon tell my father “if you don’t ask that girl out, I’m going to do it for you.”

She was a first-ballot inductee to the Scottish Mothers’ Hall of Fame, ruined two sons for life in any attempt they’d make to meet a woman who equaled her, and made my father the very epitome of a man who didn’t know how good he had it. I can’t begin to convey who my mother was in spirit, but up until the end and through huge cognitive changes, she could somehow transmit this simply by being herself. It didn’t even take words. She had caregivers fighting over who would get to care for her after my father died.

I can’t properly eulogize my mother. It’s an impossible task. She equaled my dad in all the flattering ways I eulogized him, but eclipsed anyone I’ve ever met in a more ethereal sense .. in positivity, in spirit, in goodness. Fortunately she was able to convey these qualities with just about any encounter. As a hostess. As an employee or employer. In line at a bank or supermarket check-out. She was the only person I ever believed when told “everything is going to be alright.”

As with all elite conveyors of wisdom, she taught by showing .. not telling. She taught by being. I’ve received some praise in recent years for helping to take care of my parents. But the truth is, this wasn’t some self-sacrificing act or run at becoming the next Mother Teresa. It was a pleasure to give back a fraction of what my mother gave me. She was the draw. She was the pull. She was the reason. Moreover it was an exceedingly rare example of an extended stretch where I was able to get out of my own head — and believe me, that’s no place where any of you want to be. It was simply another in a long line of gifts that she gave to me.

I discovered music through my mother .. discovered Johnny Cash. Then I went in my own direction as she tried to keep up. For a short time when I was in high school she thought everybody was Sting. A tune would come on the car radio and she’d say confidently “That’s Sting!”  “No, Mom,” I’d say, “that’s Tom Petty” or “that’s the Pretenders.” It didn’t matter .. everybody was Sting. Her roots were strong. She had a similar memory to my own for song lyrics and would point out that the Neil Young song I was playing was, in fact, a Don Gibson song.

She used to tell me that she was a Scottish witch; which would explain a lot of things. Not a witch in the good-witch bad-witch Wizard of Oz sense, but more like some elfin creature tripping from one serendipitous moment to the next. She had sayings – “Yer bum’s a lemon, suck it and see” and “Ye can’t see shite but ye need a bite.” She had all the exterior qualities too, thrown in for good measure. She was as good-looking as my dad reckoned he was. More than one male friend, in noting her passing, has begun with “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I always thought your mom was …”

There is no easy transition in trying to wrap up a goodbye to my mother. And this isn’t that. The truth is I talk to her all the time and will continue to. She said some things to me about that as well .. prepared me for this time as much as any son could be prepared for losing someone of her stature from this earthly existence; from ‘shuffling off this mortal coil’ as she and Shakespeare put it. Instead I would like to include some quick thank-yous as I did with my dad’s eulogy. Again, thank you to every caregiver who worked at the home in Greenbrae and took such great care of her. You all know better than anyone what went down in recent years, who was there and what was needed. You all bore witness. Thank you to Hospice for being such a fantastic service and allowing me to meet some great people. Thank you to Eldercare, Lynn and Leslie, and most particularly Marilyn Christensen, who had a Scottish mother herself and understood and bonded with my mom the very day she met her. Thank you to Anne O’Toole for her invaluable friendship and assistance this week. Elissa, once again thank you for making this trip for just 24 hours from New York to pay respects to a woman who thought the world of you. My parents were very different people, but they both agreed on you.

Most of all, thank you Mom.  I said it plenty when you were here and will continue to until they eulogize me. You were the single greatest influence in my life. You were me and I am you. You live on.

Looks to Kill

Netflix has issued a discretionary tweet directed at viewers of their recent Ted Bundy doc who have commented on the serial killer’s ‘hotness.’ “There are literally thousands of hot men on the service,” they write, “none of whom are serial murderers.” Netflix wants it both ways. They’re aware that part of the fascination with Bundy is his appearance — this and an understanding of the large holes in 1970s interstate law enforcement allowed him to get away with murder. They want to glorify his handsomeness enough to get you to watch but they don’t want you tweeting about it. It’s hypocritical at best; the documentary includes footage of female admirers at his trial, including one who married him and managed to conceive his death-row kid. None of this is good news for the average-looking Joe working his H&R Block gig by day and coming home from the local pub at night minus any viable phone numbers. Life isn’t fair but we don’t need a Netflix subscription to figure this much out.

Bundy’s relative hotness is a bit of a mystery to me. I get that he wasn’t bad-looking and had more physical appeal than, say, John Wayne Gacy (no offense to Gacy relatives or supporters intended.) But even minus knowledge of his murderous ways I’d think most would pick up on a certain creepiness the guy exuded. His eyes were spaced just a tad too close together and his nose came to a rather severe point. Moreover his overall impression was one of a fake ski bum posing at the lodge over a cup of hot cocoa. He seemed like the boy who attracts girls at the schoolyard but gets hit on the head with the football when he attempts to join his peers on the field. This is the terminal curse of handsome types who can’t compete. The mixed-signals they receive are infuriating and can lead to aberrant behavior.

What Bundy did not lack was ambition. I realize this is a ballsy declaration running the risk of nasty responses from those with no contextual sense. But yes, he had ambition. From all I’ve watched and read it’s no easy feat killing someone, particularly when implementing Ted’s chosen methods. Of course this can’t explain the “why” part about the women who trusted him. Presumably most did not know he was a murderer. His ambition extended to two dramatic jail breaks and appointing himself as his own courtroom defender. This was perhaps the deciding factor for the woman who accepted his marriage proposal, which he extended while questioning her on the witness stand. Have to give it to him there as it’s far more memorable than a ring at the bottom of a Cracker Jacks box. Equally troubling is imagining the more plainly-appointed boy back home whom she rejected in favor of Bundy. Being turned down for a guy standing trial for serial murder can be a big blow to one’s self-esteem.

On a slightly more serious note, the documentary never solves the question of motive in any conclusive manner. There are the usual points; he never fit in and always came up short in more legitimate endeavors. The woman with whom he planned most loftily turned him down. Toward the end he offered a sketchy explanation involving an escalating pornography habit, but that never passed the bullshit meter either. If Bundy’s behavior is most abhorrent it doesn’t lessen other eyebrow-raisers like the Florida judge who sentenced him to death while calling him a “bright young man” and noting that he didn’t “feel any animosity” toward him. That’s setting a fairly low bar for one’s shit-list. Then there are the frat boys who turned out in large numbers for his execution while pounding cases of beer and selling Ted Bundy key chains. Ambitious perhaps, but not exactly on par with migrating penniless from Utah to Florida to successfully continue one’s murderous spree. Yeah it’s all rather sick and reminiscent of the Springsteen song ‘Nebraska’ :

They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world

At the end of the day you’re better off watching ‘Narcos.’

Louis, Louis, Louis ..

Louis CK is edging back into his standup routine amid much cultural blowback. A bootlegged recording of his new year show caused substantial outrage when he targeted teenage spokespeople of high school shootings and did bits on the relative endowment of black and asian men. I’m not sure that I follow the thinking here. I’ve never put him at the top of the comedic pantheon but there was little doubt he’d be back doing comedy after getting caught up in the Me-too movement and admitting that he had a predilection for masturbating in front of women. His offenses were odd and worthy of rebuke, but somewhere below those of Harvey Weinstein. What he did seemed in line with much of his comedy, which is often centered on things like masturbation, dicks, and layered sexual fantasy. It isn’t my cup of tea but tea connoisseurs come in wide variety. He was the most revered comic in the country, raking in millions with Netflix specials, a top-rated cable show, and whatever else caught his imagination. He self-produced an unadvertised drama, ‘Horace and Pete,’ about two middle-aged bar owners in Brooklyn. Its centerpiece was an intense monologue by Laurie Metcalf on her shut-eyed, exhibitionist self-pleasuring in front of her 84 year-old father in law. This performance drew rave reviews with words like “daring” and “brilliant.” This is what Louis CK did before his more questionable tendencies were confronted; it was his bread and butter.

So now he’s back doing essentially the same thing. He’s still worth millions but sacrificed thirty-five of them in confessing to his transgressions and going away for a year. It wasn’t enough for many, including moral arbitrator Judd Apatow who took to Twitter gavel in hand and skewered CK for lacking sufficient empathic tendencies. He was accused of picking on ‘soft targets’ and toeing the line for angry white males with anti-PC agendas. It was suggested that he’d switched gears to jibe with red-state psyches and appeal to rogue instincts. Not sure what the ‘political’ in ‘PC’ refers to here, but CK is on record saying that Hillary Clinton was the only sensible choice in the last election and that our current president was a sucker’s vote. His stage patter rarely trended toward political and was more psycho-sexual and self-loathing. He fixated on his own awkwardness, disgusting middle-aged body, and sick fantasies. I never found the bulk of this appealing but many did. At other times I did find him funny, as when he’d riff on modern era minds, content to bitch about air travel when one can sit in a seat and be transported from coast to coast in a matter of hours. Whatever the consensus, the man was not an early-90’s Andrew Dice Clay incarnation or an edgier, more intellectually inclined Larry the Cable Guy. Yet this was the sense one got reading the comments and blurbs about his most recent stand-up material; those who had once lauded him as ‘brave’ were turning on him with ‘indignant,’ and ‘self-pitying,’ and ‘fear-mongering.’

So I gave the recording a listen. What it sounded like was Louis CK; like someone who had gone away for a year and picked up about where he left off. The stuff I didn’t like about him remained unchanged. Scattered among it were some genuinely funny bits. The Apatow calls of ‘insufficiently contrite’ or ‘un-empathic’ are curious. Yes, he begins the routine with “how was your year?” and talks about 365 consecutively sucking days, mentioning the huge pile of money that he lost. But the unstated vibe doesn’t feel self-pitying or indignant. It’s in line with his usual shtick of what an awkward loser he is despite his career and success. He references buying a gold watch prior to his downfall then basking in self-loathing looking at it. The question the criticism begs is “what is he supposed to do?” Putting large portions of self-examination in the routine would feel forced and shallow. Trying to beg forgiveness or push the “I’m not that guy anymore” narrative (whether he is or not) would lack any trace of sincerity he once had. Whether he deserves to be back or not is a matter for public vote. Trying to excuse, explain, justify, apologize, analyze or contextualize isn’t exactly nightclub material. The image of him fervently preoccupied, Little CK in hand, will be forever burned into his audiences’ subconscious retina. Those who think he’s a creep or pervert will likely stay away and those more inclined to offer the ‘genius’ label will take their seats.

Central to the outrage was his brief bit referencing the kids involved in the aftermath of the Parkland School shooting. Reading accounts of this caused me to track down the recording at five in the morning. There was no mention of context. Even when failing to make me laugh the one thing Louis CK could not be accused of is a lack of thought. As it turned out, this stuff was funniest to me. I too (pun notwithstanding) won’t apologize for this. Funny is reflexive and my inclination is usually opposite. I’m not an easy laugh though I appreciate those who are. The brief segment begins with him noting how his own teenage daughters loathe him, which puts them right in line with most teenagers. His younger tells him “no offense” then goes on to explain how she’s not into what he does for a living, the whole ‘stand up thing.’ She doesn’t get it, despite its having put food on her plate for years. Only then does he begin his transition toward the Parkland School “spokeskids” with the premise that almost no teenager has done anything with his or her life to be worthy of the tag “interesting.” The overriding premise is that teenagers are supposed to be fuck-ups; not pillars of reverential wisdom.

The observations that follow, that having your fellow students get shot up does not make you interesting or worthy of respect, are definitely ‘edgy’ material, but the idea that it is unacceptable or a reflection of CK’s selfish dissatisfaction with his own circumstances is ridiculous. Becoming a young spokesperson on the heels of such an event could be seen as exploitive. Many will disagree and have a good argument in doing so, but it isn’t outside the realm of reasonable debate, particularly considering the comedic context. What the bit quite clearly isn’t is some newly-found NRA sensibility that Louis CK has suddenly decided is his go-to pitch. Whatever the take on this stuff, a moment’s pause is in order before calling it ‘unacceptable.’ A fine argument could also be made concerning the reaction one might have if they were a parent of one of these kids, or the kid himself. This gets into a broader area about free speech, comedy, censorship, satire, absurdist humor, etc. And any discussion of that area could easily include names like Don Rickles and Lenny Bruce.

Norm MacDonald did a bit shortly after the death of the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ some years back and, hilarious as it was, it probably wasn’t being played at gatherings of the man’s remaining family. Norm has since said that he’s curbed his instincts with some material. Whether this is a good or a bad thing isn’t for me to decide. Family members deserve respect following a tragedy. Then again, the guy was a public figure who made his money interacting with dangerous animals. Laughter is a good, strong and rare commodity. Should we be regulating its sources with concern for the few in light of this good for the many? Maybe Louis will cover this in his next routine.

Summer’s End

Saw John Prine in New York City a few weeks back and just a few days after seeing Bob Dylan. It can be hard going to these shows; simply wading through the degrees of reverence is exhausting. This is particularly true amidst a bunch of Upper West Side sorts all straining to “be in the moment” while bristling in Worst White Person Fashion at any perceived interruption. The woman two seats down getting a beer dumped on her head at Dylan really eased me up some. You would have thought she received unimaginable news from the front line regarding her only son. Something perfect about Bob straining with the words to “Early Roman Kings” while some stuffed shirt reenacts the final scene from “Carrie.”

But Prine .. yeah. That first line from the tune .. “summer’s end, around the bend, just flyin‘” .. I don’t think there’s ever been a better or easier “we all got it comin’ ” writer. He really captures that sense of foreboding joy. I’ve been listening to it while sitting with my mother and it is indeed a time-stopper. There isn’t a better view on this planet (and I’ve seen a few of them) than that from her living room. In that moment all regrets evaporate. But really, enough of this shit.

All for now. This may be my new brevity-centered format going forward and for my stretch run. I mean, how much can a man write about Facebook and Tim Lincecum, anyway?

San Francisco, Ashtabula.

I keep listening to this one tune from the recently released More Blood On The Tracks, ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Take 5).’ It should, perhaps, make me think about my dad, who died at the end of September. But instead it’s my mom who keeps coming to mind and I suspect always will. “I could stay with you forever, and never realize the time.” Too much, really, but feels like the only way to start a post of this nature.

My father was my supporter, fan, comrade, etc, largely because he saw himself in me. It was an observation both dead-on accurate and way off the mark, but that was the man’s charm. He only knew two songs, really: “White Cliffs of Dover” by Vera Lynn and “Can She Bake A Cherry Pie (Billy Boy, Billy Boy.”) You could throw in “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin, but he was lost after “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.” So he wasn’t very musical. I bought a Fender Telecaster some years back; a ’51 reissue in Butterscotch Blonde. One evening I left it over at my folks’ house but mistakenly thought it had been stolen from the trunk of my car. “Hey Dad,” I phoned and asked, “did I leave that Telecaster guitar over at the house?” “Let me check,” he answered with a barely discernible sigh. He was always more fond of my working on my fastball than my palm-muting. “Yeah, I think it’s in the living room .. the yellow one, right?” Yellow .. Butterscotch Blonde. A small detail but one that stuck with me. There were vast regions of life where ours did not intersect, yet in his mind we were always side by side. He wasn’t wrong; just overly-certain. He’d begin sentences with “Candidly ..” as though there were other times when he actually withheld opinion. He let me make fun of him and for that I am eternally grateful.

He had a temper, far more explosive than it was vicious. He always calmed down, never held a grudge, and appreciated my forgiveness. But when it discharged, atmospheric conditions were altered. He didn’t get it — didn’t understand the cumulative effect. “If I keep it in it will kill me,” he reasoned, which I figure was the same excuse we used in Nagasaki. I recognized it because I had the same, up until my early 20s. I only brought it out after on rare occasion, a few to show him what he was like. He did and didn’t get it. Looked at me like I was from another planet. Saw himself in me and then right on past.

Anyway, here’s the cop-out .. for now, at least. I wrote “post of this nature” but don’t have the rest in me at present. It just felt like I should say .. something. For a long stretch of time he was unquestionably my most dedicated reader. He liked my stuff on sports, ‘people-profiles,’ and of course anything about him. He thought I could write and I appreciated that. I don’t figure myself prone to superlatives too often, nor at this particular time, but ‘great man’ probably isn’t a stretch. All for now, though. Maybe a full-page comic strip is in order — he was a huge fan of those too, so forget what I said about the guitar stuff. “Dick in ‘Oh Christ, Now This.’ ” Almost boggles the mind ..