Tag Archives: sixties

“Last Words” by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra)

Published in 2009, 294 pages.

Another book brought to me by my son! Thanks for continuing to broaden my horizons! If you bring it, I will read…

I wish this book had been published with its working title (discussed in the introduction) of “sortabiography”. I like that. Last Words sounds Biblical, and not very Carlin-esque.

I like the early chapters of this book the best, when Carlin describes his childhood, with emphasis on his friends and neighbors. After all, I also come of Irish stock, though my family didn’t pass through New York City and wasn’t Catholic. (I envy the former, but not the later.)

George Carlin was a rebel from his earliest days. His mother had the strength and good sense to leave an abusive marriage, but his older brother had already suffered terribly and his mother’s efforts to get cooperation and conformity from George were completely unavailing. At age 17, with his mother’s consent, he entered the Air Force. He was discharged on vague grounds after two courts martial and other infractions. I’ve heard the expression “not suitable for regimentation”. Sounds like George.

There follow many chapters about Carlin’s family life and his evolution as a performer. I feel that his writing in this book suffered from lack of editing. Once you get famous, you don’t get edited. (I first heard this from a Pulitzer prize winning poet.) NOBODY was really going to edit George Carlin. His co-author Tony Hendra (listed on the cover in itty-bitty print) is a better writer than Carlin, at least based on Last Words. (I haven’t read Brain Droppings and Carlin’s other best selling books.)

What Carlin and Hendra have in common is the satiric outlook on life. In Carlin’s case, this can get pretty dark. At one point, he contemplated an HBO special to be entitled “I Love it When Lots of People Die”. This was changed due to bad timing – September 11, 2001, came and went, and even Carlin knew it wasn’t funny any more. But you know, in a weird way, I get it. I have a close friend who roots for every hurricane that comes up the Atlantic coast. It’s not that he really wants people to die, but sometimes he really wants the storm to win. Many of us root for the forces of chaos on occasion.

I have a particular fondness for Tony Hendra because of how much I enjoyed his book Father Joe: the Man Who Saved My Soul (2004). See my blog entry of January 21, 2014. A “sortabiography” of great wit and charm.

At the end of Last Words, Carlin circles back to consideration of his childhood and discusses his desire to write a musical about it, which he proposes to call “New York Boy”. A good idea, and I wish it had happened. I wonder if he was thinking of the book Boston Boy by Nat Hentoff. Hentoff was a jazz critic, scholar and political commentator, a decade older than Carlin, and still writing at age 90. “Boston Boy” could be the backbone of an excellent musical, but I can’t find evidence that anyone is working on it.

Carlin says that he identified more with the rebel musicians of the 1960s (and earlier) than with his comedy peers. He probably knew and admired Hentoff.

So… If you are a Carlin fan, a student of contemporary America or a comedy lover, read this book!

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“A Carlin Home Companion – Growing Up With George” by Kelly Carlin

Published by St. Martin’s Press, September, 2015. 322 pages, with photos.

One of my favorite book categories is “books recommended by my son”!  And this was not an ordinary recommendation. Robert told me about Kelly Carlin’s book weeks before the publication date, which he marked on his calendar. When it came out, he went straight to the book store and bought it. He read it at light speed and handed it along to me. A high priority read!

This is a wonderful memoir! It reminds me of why I like non-fiction better than fiction. If you made this stuff up, it wouldn’t work. Kelly Carlin comes across as authentic, energetic and lively.

I’m amazed that George Carlin and his family survived the amount of drugs they did. His wife was an alcoholic who, after years of heavy drinking, went to rehab, got sober and stayed that way. George consumed marijuana and cocaine with abandon (and LSD on occasion), and the cocaine may have contributed to his heart attacks. Considering what happened to performers like John Belushi and Richard Pryor (not to mention the “27 Club” musicians), Carlin and his family dodged tragedy with intelligence and a good deal of luck.

So the first part of this book, about Kelly’s early childhood, is very sad. The cover photo is sad. Anyone who works in drug/alcohol abuse counseling knows the story – Kelly tried desperately to be the adult as her parents’ lives became increasingly chaotic. Amazingly, the adult Carlins managed to pull back from the brink.

Kelly Carlin writes engagingly about her struggles and adventures, including, in adulthood, her need for spiritual context and exploration. After her mother’s death in 1997, she says:

“Death was the scariest thing I knew, and I wanted to be able to learn to sit with it in a more conscious way. Zen and Buddhist practitioners had been facing death with great wit and aplomb for millennia. I was appalled at how mentally and emotionally checked-out I’d been with my mother during the five weeks between her (cancer) diagnosis and death. I wanted to do better when it came to my dad’s death. And I hoped to do better when it came to my own.”

This is a voice worth hearing.

In part due to her wealth and connections, Kelly Carlin was able to undertake graduate studies and professional training in Jungian psychology. Some of her happiest times were when she was a student.

What about George Carlin? (After all, who is this book about?!) I’m not a connoisseur of comedy, and Carlin didn’t particularly appeal to me, except for his “bit” about baseball versus football. But the man I met in the book was intelligent, loyal and intensely loving. The book made it much easier for me to understand the devotion of his colleagues and fans, and the emotion that surrounded his posthumous receipt of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, awarded by the JFK Center for the Performing Arts.

The Wikipedia entry on George Carlin lists his “subjects” (look it up!) and I think he had lots in common with Mark Twain. Not Twain’s novels, but consider his short story “The War Prayer”, which was withheld from publication until after Twain died. Carlin, too, was a harsh critic of American politics and policy.

Of course, as I approach retirement, I resonate completely with one of Carlin’s most popular routines, “A Place for My Stuff”!

This book should be read by anyone one interested in comedy as an art form, or in contemporary American life.

Thanks, Robert, for leading me to this book. I just found a copy of Last Words by George Carlin and Tony Hendra, and I’m already several chapters into it.

“Hellhound On His Trail: the electrifying account of the largest manhunt in American history” by Hampton Sides

I read this because there is presently a fugitive at large in Pennsylvania, in the Pocono Mountains where I spent a happy weekend last summer. On September 12, not a month after my idyllic vacation, two Pennsylvania state police officers were shot in the town of Blooming Grove. Bryon Dickson died. Police tentatively identified Eric Frein as the shooter, and they have been seeking him since then. As many as 1000 officers have participated in the chase, but Frein has not been caught. (Update – according to Wikipedia, Frein was captured on the night of October 30, 2014 at an abandoned airport.)

Are there similarities between this situation and the hunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968? Hampton Sides delved into the Ray manhunt for highly personal reasons – he grew up in Memphis, where King died when Sides was six years old. His respect for King and his sorrow over the assassination resonate throughout the book.

First, the differences. Ray shot King in a city, then followed a relatively sophisticated plan that got him to Canada in about a week. It would appear that Frein expected to “hole up” in the relative wilderness of Pennsylvania, and he seems to have the skills to do so. Ray had minimal education and a serious criminal record. Ray shot a man of international reputation who had repeatedly been offered police protection, but Frein’s targets were unknown police officers who weren’t expecting trouble.

Similarities? Each was supported or encouraged by a social movement. Racism and segregationism fueled Ray’s hatred of King. Frein is identified as a “survivalist” and a hater of police authority. Sides raises questions about presidential candidate George Wallace’s hateful, ranting rhetoric. Was Wallace responsible for inciting Ray to violence? I wonder if there is an individual behind Frein’s hostility to police. Or is it based on personal experience?

Further comparisons aren’t worthwhile, since so little is known about Frein.

Even after studying of mountains of documentation, Sides is at a loss to “explain” James Earl Ray. A prison doctor labeled him mentally ill. (The system offered no treatment. His reliance on amphetamines may have been “self medication”.) He was uneducated but canny, generally “streetwise” and able to make and follow a plan. He was a fugitive at the time he shot King, having escaped from a high security prison which had few jailbreaks. (He was not the object of an interstate pursuit.)

Ironically, at the time of this death, King was shifting his emphasis from racial issues to what we would now refer to as “economic justice”. His planned “Poor People’s March” on Washington was intended to include ALL the suffering poor. James Earl Ray was one of these – uneducated, unhealthy, and unlikely ever to scramble into the middle class.

The other irony is that the hunt for Ray was the responsibility of J Edgar Hoover, long term director of the FBI. He detested King and engaged in “dirty tricks” designed to sabotage him as a leader and in his personal life. But when King died on his watch, he poured on the full resources of the FBI, including many sophisticated technologies he had introduced into police work. He also received extensive support from police in Canada and Great Britain. Ray came very, very close to eluding the intense manhunt and escaping to Rhodesia or South Africa, where he hoped to join a mercenary army and be protected from extradition back to the US.

Sides writes very well and I recommend this book. The racial problems that erupted in the sixties have not (so many decades later) been resolved, and it is worthwhile to look back over the assassination that marked a major turning point in the Civil Rights movement.

Remembering the Sixties

The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America by James T. Patterson, 2012.

I wondered how a description of the sixties would match up to my memories. I finished high school in 1967, which means I rode out 1965 in a rather protected, suburban corner of the world. Different authors have picked different years as the crux of the sixties. Patterson emphasizes how fast attitudes changed (from hopeful to anxious) during 1965.

Two themes run through this book – Vietnam and civil rights.

To me, the important aspect of Vietnam was the draft. It was a cloud on the horizon in 1965, but before I was out of college, some draft boards called up every eligible man in their region. I was reminded that, in 1965, two Americans killed themselves by burning to protest the draft. News coverage at the time was scanty. 

Details about the civil rights movement were similarly interesting.

This book provides a good review of an important part of our history. Patterson (a professor at Brown University) has written (at least) seven other books. Several deal further with civil rights, and one is about cancer.