George Carlin
Liner Notes from Classic Gold
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These are the liner notes from "George Carlin: Classic Gold" They were typed up for this page by Tom Donohue, another George Carlin lover.

FM & AM, Class Clown, Occupation: Foole

It's November 27th, 1970.

George Carlin, 32 years old, comedian, waits to go onstage at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club, a white, middle-class, dicidedly mainstream resort night spot.

Richard Nixon, paranoid, vindictive, impeachable, occupies the White House. He has recently started to wind down the war in Vietnam by expanding it to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. His Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who has recently committed, as Governor of Maryland, the crimes for which he will one day be indicted, spends his days combing Roget for alliterative terms of abuse to denounce his liberal enemies.

Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell speaks openly of suspending the Constitution to deal with dissent. He will one day go to jail for acting on such convictions. The Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, speaks of suppressing the peace movement "if it takes a bloodbath."

These are dangerous times.

Over in Reagan Country, Southern California, honest burghers scan the oleanders by night for pairs of drug-crazed eyes. The Manson Family may be on trial, but they're widely assumed to be just the vanguard of a vast army of long-haired zonked-out slashers.

Back in Carlin's native New York this summer, vigilante gangs of hard hats organized by their union and given a free hand by the police, roamed through Manhattan, beating up anyone whose hair or dress offended them.

The story of a little Vietnamese village called My Lai, where infants had been cut into chunks by American machine-guns and women raped with M-16's before being blown apart, is gradually entering the public consciousness. The pudgy little thug who gave the order for these high jinks, William Calley, has been embraced by the President as a hero.

One bright Ohio day, last spring, four young Kent State students found out the hard way what embracing the cause of peace in a militarized society can mean. A majority of Americans believe the drunken weekend warriors who shot them down, were acting properly, and that the dead have only themselves to blame.

All these things are passing through Carlin's mind as he waits to be introduced. Of course, he could play it safe, stick to the officially approved noncontroversial material that has made him a rising star in the mainstream media. But because deep down he is more than a play-it-safe happy clown, he is torn. He is aware vividly that he's entertaining the parents of the people he sympathizes with, whose point of view he shares. He is living a lie. He feels he is nothing less than a traitor.

But these are dangerous times. Getting up on your hind legs in public and espousing the opinions of the counterculture takes guts. Doing it in uniform-- in long hair, for example, or speaking the language of solidarity with them-- puts you at even greater risk. Carlin goes out to perform. Instead of the material his audience expects--the hippy-dippy weatherman they've seen on Ed Sullivan and the Tonight Show--he tries to share some of his misgivings with them, some of the changes he feels taking place.

But, as ever, in this wildly radicaliyed time, the mere mention of peace, the mere suggestion of nonviolence, is a challenge to battle, an incitement to violence. The audience becomes hostile, drives him from the stage. Minutes later, the management sends him a message to his room where he's holed up, not only firing him on the spot, but telling him he must leave the premises immediately, as they cannot guarantee his safety. Patrons have been asking for his room number, no doubt to come by and suppress a little dissent the old- fashioned way.

Perhaps the first and only time in history when "commie" was short for comedian.

That night was George Carlin's epiphany. He decided never again to be a traitor to his generation or himself. From this point on, he would be true to his feelings, his art, and above all to his power of satiric insight.

Like his contemporary and counterpart, Richard Pryor, who had had a similar experience--and made a similar fateful choice--that same year of 1970 at the Aladdin in Las Vegas, the real George Carlin dates from this moment.

All three of these albums were and are driven by the freedom Carlin unleashed in himself by his decision that night. Their exuberance is not just in the wild multiplicity of their targets. It's the joy of self-discovery. They chronicle a personal revolution as well as a social one.

Recorded at roughly yearly intervals (FM & AM in May 1971, Class Clown in May 1972 and Occupation: Foole in March 1973), they were the first rolling breakers in a tidal storm of hard-edged, street-smart satire that would transform the cultural landscape of 70's America.

Twenty years on in an era of utter mistrust of politics a s a menas of social change, it may be hard to comprehend the passion both sides brought to their convictions. But they did; and at the time, the result was that the smallest symbol or gesture could be seen by offical America as a threat--and by its opponents as a standard--around which to rally. None of these albums, of course, was a small gesture. On the contrary, for both Carlin and his audience they were major events. All three of them went gold, and Class Clown the best of the bunch, sold almost a million copies--unheard of for a comedy album. But if some of these cuts--the drug material on Side One of FM & AM, for example-- now seem harmless, even tame, it must be remembered that at the time they were dramatic and outspoken--the expression of an experiential bond that was forbidden in any other comic medium.

Even after Carlin had completed his transformation from commerical comic to countercultural satiric guru, primarily by concentrating on underground clubs and college concerts, live performance had its perils. In 1972 he was actually arrested after a concert in Milwaukee for doing his classic routine "Seven Word You Can Never Say On Television." Obviously the Milwaukee Police Department felt they couldn't be said in Wisconsin either.

Then too, the gentle, laid-back tone of these performances may seem a far cry from the semiautomatic of today's comic delivery--and even from the angry energy of much of Carlin's own more recent work. But in its time, this too was new and daring, a voice that defined itself against the banal gibbering of '60s sitcoms and the staccato chatter of officially approved comedians.

Carlin's persona reflected the audience's perception of itself. The gentleness concealed an iron determination not to conform to the stale stereotypes of youthful behavior laid down for them by their parents' generation: bright and perky for the girls, peppy and aggressive for the boys. This was no hippy- babble. It too was a banner waved in the face of a hostile establishment--a new sound, a new language, a peaceful roar against imposed notions of how other human beings should live their lives.

But these are minor historical caveats. FM & AM, Class Clown and Occupation: Foole aren't golden oldies. They're American comedy classics. All contain timeless and hilarious material confirming--if any confirmation is still needed--that Carlin is one of our greatest and most enduring comedic voices.

Perhaps the best is on Side Two of Class Clown--an extended series of pieces on growing up catholic. The method here is nostalgic, brilliantly observed characters--boys, priests, parents--but the intention is something far more profound. What Carlin's after here is the extraordinary grip religion has on one's psyche, the extraordinary power priests of any kind derive from that grip, their monopoly of "sin." Above all, the convoluted hoops language is forced through in the process.

This is the stuff of great satire. Even in the '70s, it went beyond the contemporary concerns his audience had with Nixon-era repression, trying to get at its darkest, deepest roots. ("The priests were always pushing for pain. You were always pulling for pleasure.") Carlin's Catholicism or ex-Catholicism ("I used to be Irish Catholic--now I'm American"), is one of the many things that sets him apart. His willingness to take on the largest religion in America not only argues a basic seriousness of purpose, it's dangerous professionally.

Witness the uproar that greeted Carlin's remarks as the host of the very first "Saturday Night Live" in 1975. Taking the new program at its word, he ad-libbed some hilarious Catholic material during his second monologue, including the intriguing notion that "God must only be a semi-supreme being, since everything he's ever made has died." Needless to say, "SNL"'s supposedly revolutionary producers, not to mention NBC, had a shit-fit.

But Carlin's message isn't that the Church is a villain. His message is tolerance. He's far too wise and funny a man to preach--his method instead is to show us just how absurd intolerance can be, wherever it rears its pompous head.

One of the best pieces on Occupation: Foole evokes the streetlife of '50s Harlem (where he grew up) and his open admiration for its black inhabitants. There's nothing patronizing or chauvinist about this. It's tolerance, real tolerance--not the safe prepackaged media kind--at work. Along the way, he recreates uncannily the black voices of his childhood--perhaps the only time recorded American comedy has pulled this off, without lapsing into stereotype.

Nineties political correctness--old intolerance in a new recyclable container-- would probably frown on that, missing the affection that inspires it, the generosity of spirit that drives it. If so, too bad. Their loss.

Carlin has said he was inspired in many ways by Lenny Bruce, perhaps more than anything by his fascination with language. But what obscenity trials and history have obscured about Bruce was his common touch. He was obsessed and delighted with sub-Americana, and his love for it came from the gut, in an uncontrollable flood of images and sounds.

Carlin's juice, like Bruce's, is that same delight in the glorious untidiness of life. His command of detail, the real touch of the storyteller, is the same. Like Bruce, he finds people irresistable.

What is striking about these albums twenty years on, are not just those things we have come to expect from Carlin--incisive social commentary, and linguistic fireworks--but their warmth and range. They teem with people, none of them good or bad, but simply authentic, the voices of kids, cops, priests, parents, old folks, barflies, the sounds of the street, blaring radios, tinny commercials, rinky-dink dreams, posturing gangs, in a word, the whole wonderful, lumpy, loony mess we call humanity.

-Tony Hendra

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