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George Carlin on country

Country Musings by Robert Loy, July 2008

The great thing about having a column is that you can talk about whatever it is you want to talk about as long as you can tie it however tangentially to the subject at hand, which in this case is country music. But right now I want to talk about George Carlin, who recently passed away at the age of 71. Carlin was a genius, a real hero of mine, one of the only people I think can mentioned in the same breath as Lenny Bruce and Mark Twain. He was fearless, and he did what so few comics do - he talked about real issues, how messed up things are - and he did it in a way that made you laugh - albeit sometimes ruefully.

So all I have to do is listen to all his old albums, find a reference to country music and tie it all together.

Okay, I'm back, I've had my thoughts provoked and my ribs tickled by lines like: "Let a smile be your umbrella, and you'll end up with a face full of rain." "And: Why is the man (or woman) who invests all your money called a broker?" And: "The IQ and the life expectancy of the average American recently passed each other going in opposite directions."

But nothing about country music. I even went back and watched most of Carlin's HBO shows and got to relive him talking about the difference between baseball and football and was amazed again at how seemingly effortlessly and amusingly he want right to the heart of why I love the national pastime:

"Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness." "Baseball has the sacrifice." "In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there's kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there's not too much unpleasantness." "In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least 27 times you're capable of taking the life of a fellow human being."

I even found some evidence that Carlin was more romantic than he gets credit for: "Sex without love has its place, and it's pretty cool, but when you have it hand in hand with deep commitment and respect and caring, it's 9,000 times better."

But again, nothing about country music. I reread his books like "Napalm and Silly Putty" and "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" Nothing on country music. A Google search came up fruitless too. (Although I did learn that some extreme fundamentalist Christians picketed outside Carlin's funeral, something that I know would have pleased him immensely.) Just when I was afraid I was going to have to give up and talk about something other than the brilliant comedian I wanted to talk about, I stumbled across the January 1982 issue of Playboy magazine. Why did I save that? No, not because of the fulsome charms of Miss January, but because there's an interview with George Carlin. And in it he talks about country music, and as he did with most every other topic he touched on, had some profound things to say on the subject:

"PLAYBOY: Did you ever get into country music?

CARLIN: Oh, I loved real country music. Again, not the kind they manufacture in Nashville. I loved bluegrass and the real country people, you know, like Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. . . I love those strains of stark reality: hopelessness, sorrow, broken love, death. Like authentic R&B, authentic country music speaks for a people, and the similarities and differences between the two forms have always fascinated me. . . The freedom that a black expresses by merely walking down the street is even more evident when he sings onstage. By contrast, the white Protestant Southern country man singing onstage barely moves his body. . . But the lyrics those two men will write are precisely the opposite. The black man sings in symbolic terms about jelly rolls and sugar pies, while the white man tells you exactly what's on his mind. "Ohhh, a truck ran over my baaa-by in the ro-o-o-ad." It's a marvelous paradox that tells us so much about those two cultures."

I've changed my mind about one thing. Sometimes the best part of writing a column is doing the research.