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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 ..

Great White New Yorker Cover

I was discussing a recent New Yorker cover with a friend the other day. He’s possibly the most liberal guy I know and the illustration had a political theme, so I asked for his take. The image depicts a young, white family unloading for a summer canoe trip by a riverside. The boat is still atop the roof of an SUV or minivan and the father, thin with sun-guarding fishing hat strapped under chin and Birkenstock sandals, holds two oars and scans the parking area nervously for signs of trouble. His wife dutifully fits each child with a life vest. Parked adjacent is an unoccupied Ford pickup truck with a shotgun on a rack and three bumper stickers, one with the MAGA slogan, one a Christian cross flanked by two American flags, and one the Gasden Flag snake, coiled against blue background. The implication about the unseen pickup people is clear. For anyone who’s seen “Deliverance,” there’s strong correlation with the backwood toothless crackers who rape Ned Beatty in the film. I was less sure about the qualities ascribed to the young family, but my buddy thought the drawing cast a “wry eye” and depicted them as “crunchy.” Crunchy isn’t the adjective I’d choose; if anything they seem upper-middle class white Brooklyn with all this image entails. But I wasn’t sure. I got the artist’s intent but other subtleties escaped me. Being the New Yorker, safe assumptions can be made.

Here’s my theory on current cultural stereotypes: The left sees the right as morons and the right sees the left as pussies. Apologies for the latter word here, but it best fits. ‘Moron’ on the right includes uneducated, unenlightened, unintelligent, uncaring and unwilling to change. ‘Pussy’ on the left includes ineffective, bubble-living, hysterical and un-American. ‘Heartless,’ ‘selfish,’ ‘provincial,’ and ‘xenophobic’ can also be tagged to the right, while ‘cabbage-headed,’ ‘elitist,’ ‘condescending’ and ‘NIMBY’ work on the left. The truth is that all these tags could be applied to either side, so perhaps the one best fitting these mudslingers is “hypocritical.”

Many will point to the current social and political climate for fostering these caricatures but I believe the opposite is true. The labels and division they create have fostered the climate. It’s OK to despise a president but it seems another matter to despise an entire group or region. I know San Francisco and New York City somewhat well and can attest that the stereotypes in each case are both accurate and way off the mark. The same must hold true for places like Alabama or Tennessee. Never before have we been so connected and so far apart.

Non-sequiturs notwithstanding, I look to the tangential nuances of music. It’s an equally inaccurate means of tapping the American pulse, but does offer convenient metaphors. It’s also a safer way of finishing a post that was going in a dangerous direction. Sports may seem equally appropriate, but similar vitriol can sneak in discussing football (take a knee, buddy) soccer (nothing ever happens in this game) or basketball (these guys need to keep their mouths shut.) Baseball is the most quintessentially American game, reflecting purity of intention and wide-spread corruption. But it too can get dicey. Music is different and sneaks up on us in unconscious fashion. Toe-tapping often precedes understanding, and by then it’s too late.

Take the early work of Detroit’s native son Ted Nugent. Specifically, his song “Great White Buffalo.” It came out in ’74 on the album “Tooth Fang and Claw.” You think you know Uncle Ted, but here he explores the topics of conservation, colonialist greed, and native American wisdom. It’s sewn together with one of the greatest electric guitar riffs and climactic pay-offs of all time. The set-up is simple — The Indian and buffalo are living in harmony “only (taking) what they needed” and existing “hand in hand.” Enter the greedy white man who “couldn’t see past a bill-fold” and wants “all the buffalo dead.” The epic payoff comes when the legendary beast shows up to even the score. “When I looked above the canyon wall / strong eyes did glow / was the leader of the land / the Great White Buffalo.” GWB proceeds to “lead the battered herd” in making “a final stand.” None of this happened, of course, and the buffalo were wiped out. But the sentiment is firmly intact.

Moving along .. Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam have been riding together this summer on the “LSD Tour.” I can’t get away too much, too far, or for too long these days, but I’ve managed to catch a couple of shows in NYC and San Francisco. I’ve also seen Yoakam perform solo in spots like Santa Rosa, Stockton and Sparks, Nevada. The fanbase for these acts, particularly Yoakam and Earle, can be politically disparate. Earle rants on about fascism and Trump between songs and Dwight pays homage to Merle Haggard and “Fightin’ Side of Me” blares from P.A. speakers before he takes the stage. Yet Yoakam’s fans cross over to Earle and his early work like “Galway Girl.” And I saw two young gay dudes at the Masonic show in San Francisco, obviously there to see Dwight, still rocking tight jeans at 61 and twirling on the toe of his Rios of Mercedes cowboy boots. All three acts are southern and came up together. It has to be one of the oddest fanbase congregations ever  but it works and everybody walks out smiling. It’s a bit reminiscent of when Willie Nelson let his hair out and wrote “I’d have to be weird to grow me a beard just to see what the rednecks would do.” Music allows this type of odd integration and even celebrates it. Or maybe I hope it does .. I don’t know. Like I said “tangential nuance.” I’m as lost for answers as most others, but this seems as good a direction to push my chips as any.

Bucking the Friends

Facebook is plastering the NBA playoffs with new commercials emphasizing its efforts to fix things. Privacy protection and “reducing the spread of false news” are chief concerns. They want to get back to what they were “all about” in the first place — friends. This may be the single largest chunk of shit that this shit-delivering behemoth has ever tried to sell. “Friends” are the original source of false news. Friends try to sell other friends on their lives being better than good. Friends share perfect meals, attractive camera angles, and harmonious familial interaction. Friends’ kids always get into their college of choice, their pets are reliably adorable, and their significant others worthy of widely-disseminated consecration. Friends complain to other “friends” that the rest of the world has gone crazy by virtue of its misalignment with their core values and are then vindicated with upward thumbs, smiley faces and hearts. Facebook friends .. sheesh. If this is to be our starting point for ending fake news we’ve got a long climb ahead.

Easy, everyday contact with hundreds can be a complex phenomenon that requires caution. Every new instrument of communication has brought this challenge. The microphone allowed tyrannical weasels to project. The telephone brought people into our homes from outside its walls. Facebook is these inventions on steroids. The professed goal may be better human interaction and making the world a more harmonious place but its stock is steeped in millions checking in daily and providing personal information. It’s becoming an old platform anyway and the younger generation seems to have next to nothing to do with it. Even these Internet behemoths aren’t impervious to the passing of time. As an old guy I see this as rare reason to have hope in the future. The speed with which stuff changes these days may be staggering but on some levels it keeps bullshit in check.

Here’s what I know about friends: they’re hard to keep. Given the choice, many of us would choose not to keep in contact with ourselves. Most of us go around wondering why so and so hasn’t stayed in touch when the impetus is on us. Even family drifts, and, at all cost, avoids the responsibility of caring for one another. This began with the first absent caveman father thinking “I’m getting the hell out of here.” Divorce isn’t a modern phenomenon; it’s a legal escape hatch. If Facebook wants to survive it should be considering this. They’ve grown too big too fast and need to accept limitations and stop slinging this altruistic intentions crap. Facebook Divorce. This is what I’d be telling Zuckerberg were he not so much younger and richer than me. Here is where your answer lies. And it could be better than actual divorce, at least initially and until the lawyers catch on. With one click ties are severed completely and surgically. Oh sure, I know what you’re saying .. they already offer this with with the “unfriending” option. But I’m suggesting something more than this that offers a deep and satisfying cleansing from the other’s existence. Then they can run the playoff ads. “Facebook Divorce : because we get it right.” Swish.

I, Tonya, Too.

Everybody funny; now you funny, too” – G. Thorogood

Here’s a fun-stirring intro: It would seem this “me-too” stuff has calmed down a bit. While it’s certainly a worthy movement at its core, the string of celebrity and semi-celebrity accusations was reaching such fever pitch, it couldn’t possibly sustain. Somewhere between Louis CK’s exhibitionist prong-pulling and Aziz Ansari’s bad date, the campaign peaked and returned to earth like a Chinese space station. Along the way it hit well-deserving targets like the piggish Harvey Weinstein and just about every male middle-school teacher in Ethiopia. Obviously there are many more worthy examples, and most will never be reported or publicized. But it also brushed up against some complex bits of male-female relations that are acknowledged privately but find little place for public platform. Sexual aggression is largely unwelcome but sexual assertiveness can be a trickier issue. Self-confidence can be sexy but only when displayed appropriately and with justification. Power is a tricky attribute to wield but to deny its place in the universe is to deny the cosmos itself. And if you’re “pretty sure she wants it” you’re likely far more repulsive than you ever imagined. These are all nuanced conversations that, recently and within the more volatile scope of this subject, can only be safely discussed among women. Simply removing the less-evolved sex from the discussion, however, doesn’t subtract the human element or potential rancor. Despite cliched prophecy, even if us guys disappeared en masse tomorrow, not everything would be Kumbaya.

The problem is that none of this stuff is even up for debate in today’s culture and any suggestion of gray areas gets one lumped in with more egregious offenders. So, as with most things these days, we watch our step religiously and keep our mouths shut. (Under-read bloggists not withstanding.) Of course nothing breeds trouble like suppressed emotion. As George Carlin once pointed out “the classroom is the best place (to get laughs) because, well .. no one is allowed to laugh there ..” Just replace “laughs” with “votes” in that bit and you’ve gone a long way toward understanding the last U.S. election. Huck Finn is a decent book, but is it worth getting labeled “racist”? Using plural pronouns to refer to people in the singular is illogical, but is it worth being painted as a transphobe? Most of these examples lend themselves to political polarization but this can be as inappropriate as it is unfortunate. The “me-too” debate really brought this home by crossing political lines and broadening the divide to one half of the population versus the other. And to be fair, if we were to remove either of the two major, prevailing political parties tomorrow, does anyone really believe it would fix anything?

It is perhaps unconscionable to deny the genuinely troubling aspects of some of these situations. But is it so wrong to point out that some of the most strident, self-appointed enforcers of “properness” are as as grating and unlikable as those they wish to correct? Though many will miss the reference, there’s a reason Belushi’s guitar-smashing “I Gave My Love a Cherry” moment in the film Animal House resonates. There’s a reason that seeing Beavis and Butthead school teacher Van Driessen crash through the front window of the bus and fall down the canyon, bumping his head on each pointed surface en route, releases cathartic joy. Humor is a universal barometer and pressure-gauge for cultural climate. (Granted, “Animal House” came out in 1978, but Youtube clips are as popular today as ever.) This isn’t to say that laughs can’t be misplaced (see “Clay, Andrew Dice”) but at least they put it out there for debate. And it’s the one circumstance under which reflexive response cannot be suppressed. Louis CK will definitely be making a comeback at some point and the opening material for this comeback wrote itself. To be fair, it was already the bulk of his subject matter anyway, but people seem to have conveniently overlooked this.

If you see something, say something” is a post-911 mantra for the New York City subway system, and with good reason. “If you think something, keep it to yourself” would be equally apt for life above ground these days. This is particularly relevant if you happen to be a “straight, white male” which would have been abbreviated to AAA for “asshole, asshole, asshole” by now were it not for the American Automobile Association. I’m inclined to add an additional “A” in my case for “ageing” though the Animal House reference speaks for itself. And if you’re among those in my limited readership thinking “I’ve noticed this guy is running out of material,” well … me too

Shitholes And Other Things Coming

Our esteemed president’s use of the word “shithole” got me thinking the other day, not about Haiti nor Nigeria, but rather the climatic scene in “Unforgiven.” William Munny (Clint Eastwood) walks silently into Greely’s Saloon where his partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) is displayed out front in an open, upright coffin with a torch-lit sign reading “this is what happens to assassins around here.”

Munny (pointing his 10 gauge double barrel at the assembled group): “Who’s the fella owns this shithole? You, fat man, speak up.”
Skinny: “I own this establishment. Bought it from Greely for a thousand dollars.”
Munny (to men behind Skinny):”You better clear out of there.”
Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman): “Just hold it right there .. Hold it! ..” (Munny fires, blowing Skinny back against the wall.) “Well sir you are a cowardly son of a bitch. You just shot an unarmed man.”
Munny: “He best arm himself, if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.”

The economy of words in Unforgiven is remarkable. Credit goes to David Webb Peoples, the San Francisco screenwriter who authored the film. Eastwood had the insight to buy the script, which had been optioned once to Francis Coppola, and hold on to it until he was old enough to play the role. But as with most great efforts, it’s the writing. Peoples was invited by Eastwood to attend a screening of the film in its final version and, expecting to see a full theater, was shocked to realize just he, Clint and the projectionist would be watching. As the reels turned and it became apparent that not a single word of his original work had been altered, he cried.

What makes Unforgiven so special? To some, not much happens in the film. A broken-down ex-outlaw pig farmer mounts a comeback, a cliched final gunfight ensues, and credits roll. In the hands of a lesser writer it might play as a parody of Eastwood’s early roles. Will Munny is Dirty Harry minus the magnum and spiffy sport coat; Josey Wales minus the cocksure tobacco spitting. And he is both these characters, with a little more time under his belt. Munny is described as “cold as snow” in his younger days and having neither weak nerve nor fear. But this last job he’s going to pull — killing some cowboys for cutting up a whore — is strictly a utilitarian undertaking. He’s in it to pocket some cash to buy a few more pigs or perhaps move somewhere where his kids can have a better life. As pieces of his legend are recounted by secondary characters it’s clear Munny wants no part of his old self. When his partner Ned corrects one account of Will’s earlier exploits (“I remember it was three men you shot – not two ..”) Munny tells him he “ain’t like that no more” and, laughably, that he’s “just a fella now.” Just a fella hunting down two cowboys for cutting a whore. “It was mostly the whiskey that done it,” he explains. As Will regresses to his old ways, darker elements of his legend are revealed. He’s said to be the “same William Munny who dynamited the Rock Island and Pacific in ’69, killing women and children and all.” This is emphasized by Gene Hackman’s Sheriff Bill with one chilling sentence after Skinny is killed.

Little Bill: “You be William Munny out of Missouri, killer of women and children.”

Munny: “That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.”

By this point the viewer has become complicit with Munny. We understand him to be a child-murderer by his own admission, yet we’re still enamored with the justice he’s about to exact for his dead friend. The moment is as thrilling as any in Eastwood’s previous films, yet we’re being reminded that there is consequence for indiscriminate violence; for every bullet fired or train dynamited. The script is married perfectly with Clint Eastwood’s career to this point. We don’t tolerate the antihero, we cheer him. For every ‘fascist’ label applied to Dirty Harry, trying to argue the catharsis is futile. As is trying to argue the effectiveness of well-constructed cinematic violence. We want to see justice served to the bully or unapologetic punk, collateral casualties be damned. With Unforgiven this idea has been taken a step further and we’re actually celebrating the badness of the protagonist, his sheer cold-blooded force as he recovers from the brink of death, starts taking harder hits off the whiskey bottle, and in hunched, aged form, returns to wreak havoc. As the sign on the wall in Specs’ tavern in San Francisco reads: “Old Age and Treachery Will Overcome Youth and Skill Every Time.”

Peoples’ script is filled with great detail that makes the film whole. The central female characters are whores but not passive in approach. They post the bounty on the cowboys and lure the string of outlaws into town. As the madame Strawberry Alice notes “just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses that don’t mean we gotta let them brand us like horses.” The whores affect action in the only manner available to them and, oddly, are not punished as violence ensues. They are chastised and berated but none of them is put in jail. As Little Bill remarks when attempting to whip answers out of Ned Logan “when their (the whores‘) lies don’t match your lies .. well, I ain’t gonna hurt no woman ..” There are two other female characters who figure prominently: Logan’s wife, the Indian Sally Two Trees and Munny’s dead wife Claudia Feathers. Sally sees right through Will Munny to his murderous soul, still intact. And Munny’s deceased wife serves as hollow guidepost in the film’s early scenes where, despite embarking on this killing for hire, he invokes her guidance from beyond as new moral compass. He tells his kids that his dead wife “cured him” of his evil ways, teaching him not to mistreat animals. He tells Ned that Claudia steered him clear of whiskey, the spirit responsible for much of his past behavior. But as the story progresses it becomes apparent that true change, whether applied to present times or the Old West, is the rarest commodity. This is the film’s arc as it nears climax: Munny once again chastising an uncooperative horse as a “pig-fucking whore” and reaching for the bottle.

Munny’s partner Ned Logan is an interesting character too. No mention is made of his being black, and this at a time when it most certainly would have been noted. No racial epithets are hurled and he’s a land-owning equal allowed to survive on his wits like any other. Some may point to the whipping scene in the jailhouse as allusion to slavery, but Sheriff Little Bill doesn’t reserve his whippings exclusively for Ned and not once does he use a racially derisive word. This would perhaps compromise Little Bill’s portrayal of himself as a fair judge of men with “low character.” But none of the others note Ned’s color either and it’s a detail that can’t be overlooked. Ultimately Logan, as opposed to Munny, is shown to be a changed man. He can’t pull the trigger on his Spencer rifle to kill the cowboy and is forced to hand the gun over to Will to do the job. It’s this very change of heart or crossover to humanity that results in his demise as he is captured “going south,” having given up on the hunt. The other to drop out shortly after is the Schofield Kid, Will and Ned’s youthful and transparently cocksure third partner for most of the film. The kid serves a few purposes. In early scenes his swagger is false as he brags about his exploits and peppers Will with questions about his past. He is symbolically half-blind and wants desperately to be a “bad man” like Munny but when he finally pulls the trigger to end another’s life he is aged and changed instantly, filled only with regret. This leads to the movie’s most famous exchange with iconic lines delivered by Eastwood. “It’s a hell of a thing killin‘ a man,” he observes. “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” And then after the badly-shaken kid tries to compose himself by noting that the man he killed had it coming: “We all have it coming, kid.” Clint Eastwood may be a far cry from the best actor of our time, but nobody understands his own epochal legend better.

Saul Rubinek, as the writer/biographer W.W. Beauchamp, is another great character. He’s a novelty in a time when many didn’t know how to read or write, never mind pursue it as career. The running joke when Beauchamp reveals his profession as writer is the retort “you mean letters and such?” There aren’t many biographers in western scripts and this is yet another great detail at the hand of David Webb Peoples. Peoples is in a subtle sense pointing out his own centrality to the film; how writers shape everything. Beauchamp is a parasite of sorts wanting only to attach himself to the greatest legend. He begins with English Bob (another superb example of character and casting as portrayed by Richard Harris.) Bob is a proud Englishman, deriding locals for America’s custom of electing a president and espousing the majesty of monarchy. He then receives a beating at the hands of Little Bill (in another of the film’s brilliant scenes with Hackman deftly conveying both his character’s penchant for and discomfort with violence.) Shortly after the writer Beauchamp jumps ship to follow Little Bill as his biographer and this sticks to the film’s end when he attempts to gain access to Munny after he’s single-handedly shot and killed five armed men.

Beauchamp: “Who, uh, who’d you kill first?”
Munny: “Huh?”
Beauchamp: “When confronted by superior numbers an experienced gunfighter will always fire on the best shot first.”
Munny: “Is that so?”
Beauchamp: “Yeah, Little Bill told me that. And you probably killed him first, didn’t you?”
Munny: “I was lucky in the order. But I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.”
Beauchamp: “And who was next? It was Clyde, right? You must have killed Clyde ..”
Munny (eyeing Beauchamp): “All I can tell ya is who’s gonna be last ..”

And so Beauchamp beats a hasty retreat, writer as observer with the rest of us, as the others huddle hidden in the night’s driving rain outside Greely’s to watch Munny exit on his horse. Several have a direct and open shot on him but none will take it. He barks a few words of authoritative instruction — “You better bury Ned right! .. Better not cut up nor otherwise harm no whores or I’ll come back and kill every last one of you sons of bitches!” But it’s the exit of a man invincibly alone with another pile of bodies to account for when he eventually reaches his final authority. There is satisfaction in Unforgiven, but no redemption. Even if we can make things right against all odds it doesn’t equate to ‘true change.’ And it doesn’t stop any of us from having it coming.

Saul Rubinek Blues

Well he should’a armed himself .. if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.” – Eastwood

I was sitting in my old Noe Valley apartment a long while back with a friend, watching ‘Unforgiven.’ If it isn’t my favorite all-time movie it’s top-three without voting. “I wonder who we would’ve been,” she mused, “if we’d lived in the old west.” She went on to suppose roles for us, fairly accurate I’d guess, based on who we were as modern-day, semi-adult city-dwellers. A lot of things you look back on and think “what bullshit that was“, but this isn’t one of them. The more road I take on the more I see the permanence of who I am and the futility of ever trying to change it. This subtracts nothing from the occasionally necessary change of scenery, either. What it does emphasize is the even greater futility of trying to change someone else. This idea lends itself to other interesting ones, free will among them. If the ego is an illusion, as so many fashionable sorts claim, this might explain the inflexibility of identity. It would be a tough illusion to sustain otherwise. It’s a little like the way a body fights instinctively to remain, despite all suffering and reason. People would go around dying everywhere were this not the case, easy as they drink bottled water.

I remember, as a young man, taking a tour of an East Bay film studio and meeting some guy who made film trailers. His job was to elicit as many positive responses from a two or three minute clip as possible, and they had wires they’d attach to people’s heads to tell them when they’d succeeded. Essentially, at that point in cinematic history anyway, it all came down to putting Bill Murray’s face up there. They could construct the most elegant tease in the history of film, but without Bill’s mug it was shit. I thought about this for a long while after. To me Bill Murray represents some sort of Zen Resignation. It’s like his face says “nothing is going to work out but I’m going to stick around to see how it plays, anyway.” And yeah, if I’d seen it appear in a film trailer I’d probably have made note to see that movie. The other face that registers that way with me is Clint Eastwood. Yet Clint’s face is far from indifferent; it kind of says “Now I’m gonna kill you and I’m lookin’ pissed off for you makin’ me do this.” It’s a joyously, handsomely, constipated and comically angry face. It’s the look he gives Gene Hackman in ‘Unforgiven’  just after Gene tells him “see you in hell” and Clint replies “yeah” and then fires a shotgun at his head, point blank.

Where am I going with all this? Not sure, but it’s the only place I could have gone anyway. We need division to have identity and we cling to identity despite its being arguably false. Here was my exact thinking for this year’s World Series: I didn’t care because the Giants were 55 games out by August and I only had subliminal recognition of divisional standings due to the scrolling crap they put at the bottom of the screen when I’m watching something else. I had other hard stuff going on and this was meaningless. But then the playoffs came around and I needed diversion for a few hours at night and they use an extra twelve or thirteen cameras and a bunch of other people care so I started to follow. I rooted against the Dodgers because they’re the Dodgers I suppose and because I have some kind of emotional investment in Madison Bumgarner’s post season legacy outliving Clayton Kershaw’s. Also because Kershaw is arguably the best pitcher in the game and has enough other things going for him to not worry about him. I took this thinking all the way to Game Seven and seeing my adopted favorite Astros heading for victory, but was unable to fully enjoy their ultimate success due to feelings of empathy for Dodger starter Yu Darvish. If there’s a way to contain this in a character description, this is who I would have played in ‘Unforgiven.’

What I’m getting at here is that politics is a kind of uber-bullshit, burning and hurling through space at breakneck speed and consuming everyone and everything in its path. It’s sports for those who are too lame or disinterested to inappropriately filter their emotions in that direction. It’s “the world’s gonna end” every week and every day until the Cuban Missile Crisis rolls around the day after Richardson snags McCovey’s liner to end the ’62 Series. And now it’s been distilled to its purest form with hatred based solely upon who or what one aligns himself with or similar estimate of another. The real bitch of it is, you can’t escape this conundrum. It’s like trying to be blissfully unaware of playoff baseball with those lines still scrolling at the bottom of your screen. If you have no horse in the race you still have something against someone’s jockey or the colors the little shit chooses for his silks. And of course sometimes the race does matter; sometimes it’s war or somebody’s kid dying or the powerful taking advantage of the weak. But trying to distill this into political lines is never clean and a little like trying to hate Clayton Kershaw while still feeling sorry for Yu Darvish.

And so we end up with music. Or I do anyway and I defend it passionately while gloriously taking sides against all reason. I never cared for the Beatles.  And I spent a Sunday overnight in Stockton a few weekends back with two close friends in order to see Dwight Yoakam at the Bob Hope Theater, but neither Bob nor Dwight ever showed up. See? It just doesn’t make any sense, and that’s the point.

You’re A Funny Guy

Well you know she still laughs with me / but she waits just a second too long” – John Prine

One of the funniest things I ever read was an Onion headline back in 2004 during the Jim McGreevey scandal: “Homosexual Tearfully Admits To Being Governor of New Jersey.” It works on so many levels .. which was what Homer Simpson said about Hans Moleman’s short film “Man Getting Hit By Football.” But I digress. Solidly humorous material can be rendered a fail given the wrong audience. The same person laughing uncontrollably at my Herve Villechaize M&M’s joke (“The plaaaaain … the plaaaaaain!”) won’t crack a smile at my “snail chucked over a fence” bit. Neither is mine of course, except by virtue of being in my limited joke wheelhouse. So it is with outdated trepidation and non-sequitur ease that I accept responsibility for some hate-mail I received last week objecting to something I wrote four years ago on infamous Marin Country outlaw high schooler Max Wade. I won’t recount the post in question or my failed attempt at tongue-in-cheek humor. This guy let me have it for being a trust fund kid and waste of space. In my defense I’ve lost some weight of late, so that’s less space being wasted. Point is, in this case anyway, it missed the mark.

Comedians benefit from a lack of neediness. This isn’t the same as not giving a shit. Plenty of comics adopt the guise of defiant, tough-guy indifference yet aren’t particularly funny. But in the case of some — think Norm MacDonald — this absence of the need for reassuring laughter combined with genuine talent is a powerful combination. There are also those who are both needy and occasionally funny. The late Robin Williams comes to mind. But pure “needy” rarely works. People like to think they’re special when it comes to laughing. Nothing kills a comedian’s appeal more than seeing your idiot neighbor coming unglued over one of his bits. Said neighbor might be laughing at the inflated surgical glove atop Howie Mandel’s head while totally missing the subtleties of his discourse. It’s been said that there is no greater aphrodisiac than laughter, but this too comes with caveat. Woody Allen’s brand of nebbish, self-effacing, pseudo-intellectual hilarity didn’t have the same end-result when he was Allan Konigsberg, and this has little to do with practiced timing. If women respond to humor they respond even more to power. (See above for hate mail address.) Yet many powerful men just aren’t funny. If you can get the two working in conjunction it’s a license to print money.

Women’s humor is a somewhat controversial topic. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a (partly) satirical piece for Vanity Fair titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Predictably it got a lot of blow-back, but that was the point. While I’d never put it in such certain terms, it’s an idea that’s been floated before. Some years prior a slightly less articulate but more disheveled John Belushi made the same claim. Is there a biological imperative, as Hitchens claimed, that men work on their sense of humor more than their female counterparts? Perhaps, but I don’t find gay guys particularly funny either. And generally speaking they’ve got more testosterone flowing than a small engine repair school dropout at a Black Sabbath show. There aren’t as many women who can make me laugh, but there aren’t as many trying. Sarah Silverman once had a line that broke me up. Again, in deference to the hate mail, this was her bit: She was speaking plaintively about rape and observed “No woman asks to be raped. Some women are asking to be motor-boated, though … ” It’s a line that could only work for a strong, female comic, just as some material can only work for a black comedian. Chris Rock’s infamous “black people vs niggas” is another example. Only part of his audience is “allowed” to laugh, and in both cases (Silverman and Rock) the result is potent. Suppressed laughter was the central thesis for George Carlin’s “Class Clown” routine.

Nothing is less funny than someone attempting to dissect humor. (See “Crystal, Billy: ‘Mr Saturday Night’ “) But I defend my efforts here on the grounds of laziness and having nothing else to write about. If ever there were a time for laughs it’s now. Images of Harvey Weinstein’s mug beg for comic relief yet none arrives. Saturday Night Live, after brief reprieve, jumped the comedic shark post election night with Kate McKinnon’s tearful rendition of ‘Hallelujah’. It simply hasn’t been funny since. Where have you gone, Chris Farley, with your “I want Holyfield!” Norman Schwarzkopf impression and coffee table destroying belly flops? Our nation turns its unamused eyes to you. These were simple premises with big returns and they are all but gone today. The recent mass sexual misconduct allegations have landed comedian Louis CK in hot water. I never found CK as amusing as some do and his material seemed to have a preternatural obsession with dicks and masturbation. What are the odds, then, that he’d be accused of taking his out and doing so repeatedly and without invitation? Where do these people think “art” comes from — thin air?

“Taking the piss” or “winding somebody up” are British expressions for humorous attempts at another’s expense. “Breaking balls” would be the American equivalent, though it’s always risky equating colloquial English with colloquial American. An over the top example that comes to mind is Joe Pesci’s “what the fuck is so funny about me?” scene with Ray Liotta in the film “Goodfellas.” Pesci goes from being laughed with to feigned paranoia over being laughed at back to the relief and release of being laughed with again. It’s a real tightrope walk and underlines the idea that humor is serious business. If you laugh hard enough you’ll eventually cry and comics are some of the saddest people going. Just ask Louis CK.

Petty Thoughts

Here it is three days later and I’m still bummed out. This doesn’t generally happen to me, not for these reasons. He was a pop star; a rock ‘n’ roller and celebrity who hung out with Harrison and Dylan. He smoked like a chimney and made it to sixty-six, died in fairly unspectacular fashion and on a day when sixty others were tragically gunned-down in Vegas. Moreover he was fucking main-stream and loved by the masses; not some unique trip that I alone had discovered and taken.

It was always easy to underestimate Tom Petty. I didn’t but saw others have at it — those who fancied themselves possessing more “sophisticated” musical tastes and lumped him in with, I don’t know, Boston or Kansas or Skynyrd or even Springsteen. I recall, some years back, driving my small Nissan 240SX up to Sonoma for a company party with my girlfriend sitting shotgun and another coworker who’d requested a lift crammed in back. He was usually an affable sort but had a thing for her and on this hot summer day gave some lip when I went to put a cassette in the player — “I hope Rick isn’t about to play Tom fucking Petty again” — with snotty attitude and accent. I cut him some lovesick slack; people say stupid shit under such crowded, uncomfortable circumstances, even when there by their own volition. But the slight directed at Petty has stuck with me, ridiculously, for 20-plus years. There is something particular about select musical tastes that I possess. It’s limited to precious few and I burn out and come back to the tunes myself all the time. But they are there in my head constantly, triggered by a word or thought. Give me “there’s a dream I keep havin‘ ” and I immediately go to “where my mama comes to me / and kneels down over by the window / and says a prayer for me.”  I’m just lost, at least for the moment. The image is specific and may or may not extend to the south or praying, but is my mom and as real as the day is long. That’s one overwrought example but there are many others, trivial or otherwise. Give me “I was talkin’ with a friend of mine” and I jump to “said a woman had hurt his pride.” It just happens and not because I’m some savant or suffer post-traumatic stress associated with “Damn The Torpedoes.” It is just there and will be until the day either I or my brain dies. Such is Tom Petty to me.

Petty was a lizard, a snarling, straw-haired swamp jockey who dragged Gainesville to Los Angeles and got it in the water system. He was, as I often observed, a “weird dude” and had something else going on that isn’t easy to define. He used words to combine the personal and specific with the eternal and relatable. That, as pretentious and grandiose as it sounds, is about as close as I can come. He’d take a phrase like “don’t do me like that,” uttered first by an abusive, southern father, and make it understood by a fifteen year-old high school girl in Tarzana. Years later he’d take a spot just up the road from that girl’s house and write “it’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda / there’s a freee-way, runnin’ through the yard.” If you ever want to get why people both understand and underestimate Tom Petty, listen to “Free Fallin’.” It makes millions who never lived near the San Fernando Valley connect to the place and cements the words to those who have for life. We’re all bad boys ’cause we don’t even miss her,  all bad boys for breakin’ her heart.

Or maybe I’m going too far with this .. it’s possible. Petty was a rock ‘n’ roller in the way I came to understand the word. Some of my earliest memories are from ’77, sitting on the carpet in my brother’s bedroom when he wasn’t home, cranking the first album and “You’re Gonna Get It” on his Sansui receiver through Infiniti speakers. And then, well before the advent of MTV on a local cable show called “Rockvision,” seeing a clip of Petty, shot in glorious film, at the Whisky on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. The tune was “I Need to Know” and he seemed to anchor that famous schnoz on the microphone and bob up and down to the beat in so cool a fashion it went straight to your veins. He was the anti-rockstar and the epitome all at once. The second grainy Rockvision clip was “American Girl” and I suppose that was it for me, for life. Mike Campbell’s Telecaster outro solo was the same back then as today and, appropriately, those were the last notes Petty heard before walking off stage last week to end his 40th anniversary tour and the last he’d play in front of fans before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Petty cared about his fans and understood that it was a personal thing, that he got in their blood. Unlike Springsteen who would alienate to make a point and launch into a ten-minute political diatribe mid-show, Petty would never dare stop a show to politicize or take anyone out of the experience. As he put it, it wasn’t hard to figure out what side of the aisle he leaned toward. He played at Al Gore’s concession party and quietly issued a cease and desist order to W. when Bush used “I Won’t Back Down” on the campaign trail. But he didn’t make a big deal out of it, just as he didn’t when his riffs or words were lifted by other artists. “I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs,” he said. He could have been the biggest hack going and those words would still resonate with me. He went to bat, quietly and fiercely, dozens of times for what he believed in. He went up against MCA in ’81 when record companies ruled the land, refusing to let them raise the price of his album “Hard Promises” by a buck for fear that it would put it out of reach for some 16 year-old grocery-bagger waiting on his hero’s new vinyl. He did all of this quietly and tenaciously to the end. Stopped flying the flag of the Confederacy even though it never meant “that” to him or to most of his fans. Did this quietly and respectfully too, despite redneck protests, saying it left him feeling “stupid” and that he’d “never do something to hurt someone.”

But what he did above and beyond all of this was use music with words in most remarkable fashion. He was derided by some for his appeal to many. Going to a Heartbreakers show in recent years was to go to a “greatest hits” show. This wasn’t due to his choice of songs, but rather because of his appeal and popularity .. his talent. Those shows were as cross-generational as they come .. parents, grandparents, kids. As my buddy Dave put it recently “there’s something wrong with somebody who doesn’t like Tom Petty.” I prefer to think that they’re either a) not from “here” (with “here” defined as broadly as America or narrowly as Reseda) or b) they just haven’t listened. The outpouring the last few days has been immense and I’ve taken comfort, and felt a little less foolish, by reading what he meant to so many. Somebody, somewhere wrote that “if you think back on the ten best days of your life, there’s a good chance Tom Petty was playing in the background for half of them.” An exaggeration perhaps, but like all good exaggerations, one that applies to me. So I’ll close it with that thought and a short bit of verse from a more obscure track off a lesser-known album, “The Best of Everything” from “Southern Accents”:

yeah and it’s over before you know it
it all goes by so fast
the bad nights take forever
and the good nights don’t ever seem to last