George Carlin R.I.P. (fat fucking chance, I’m sure)

GGeorge Carlineorge Carlin and I actually had some history together. For instance, George was the only person ever to fly me (and my performing partner at the time, Steve Shook) to Alaska (first class, mind you -and not just because he was trying to get rid of us, either, as he was on the same plane.) It was the early seventies; people did crazy things like this back then.

Steve and I first met George sometime around 1971, when we shared a bill at a wonderful coffeehouse in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania called the Main Point. We had been booked as an opening act for (if memory serves) Dave Van Ronk, who apparently had had to cancel at the last minute. We were delighted to find out that George would be his replacement, because we had seen George a couple times on Ed Sullivan and liked his stuff (of course, that had been back in George’s straight, short-haired days, but he was still good -not famous yet, but still funny.) We actually got busted for pot on the way to the gig (well, technically, Steve got busted, but it was for my pot -totally typical), and had the un-nerving experience of sitting in the Fishkill (NY) state police barracks, watching through the window as an officer searched our car for more contraband. We actually saw him take out the Band-Aid cannister that we knew had pills in it and poke around in it and somehow fail to find The Stuff.

Which explains why when we got to Bryn Mawr, we had no pot, but we did have a few tabs of a brand new kind of dope (at the time) that we just loved called MDA , which was considered sort of a “love drug”, in that people under the influence tended to love everything. We gave some to George, and it had the usual effect; in return, he gave us some pot (ditto), and we hung out later on with some sisters who had a fabulous collection of rock n’ roll 45s, found out that we were both record collecting geeks, and became great friends for life (I believe it was also on that night that we discovered Fats Domino’s recording of “I Wanna Walk You Home”, which my band the Philharmonic still performs to this day.) (And, by the way, kids, don’t take drugs. Or, do. Suit yourself.)

We also loved each other’s acts. George, of course, was a genius, but a warped enough genius that he actually really “got” our strange act, too. We had a ball trying stuff out on each other (he liked using an idea of Steve’s about haggling with toll booth attendants: “A dollar twenty-five?!? You’ve got to be kidding! One lane was closed for ten miles! I’ll give you eighty-five cents”; and we were always trying to get him to sit in with us on piano, or, one time somewhere in Michigan, trumpet -“Miles Carlin!!” -invitations that he usually, but not always, had the good sense to resist.)

We opened almost all his shows from the mid-seventies through the mid-eighties, and even after that he was still my best, most generous and steadfast supporter up to the present, even though, with my various eccentric presentations, I’m sure he must’ve had people telling him he was crazy (even Groucho Marx, after seeing Travis and Shook open for him in at the Roxy in L.A., commented, “these guys have been on way too long.”) He got us on the Tonight show a couple times, tried to get us on his label, tried to help in lots of ways, but we proved largely success-proof. Sure had fun trying, though!

Plus, there were occasional excursions, like going to see him in Las Vegas where he was playing for a Soldiers of Fortune convention at the Sands (talk about a bunch of guys you really want to be drinking and gambling with!) Jerry Hamza, George’s longtime manager (a delightful fellow who we always called “The Hammer”), was an avid fisherman, so we did a handful of fishing trips, up in Minnesota or Maine or wherever, and it was always great to see the city boys fitful attempts at rustication. I’ll never forget George’s roadie, the great comb-over specialist Billy Buisso, casting off from our houseboat, having thrown in the towel on the whole wilderness thing, muttering “Fumes! Fumes! I need fumes!” as the dingy putt-putted him back to civilization. Don’t remember for sure if that was the morning after we practically blew up the houseboat with erratically aimed fireworks or not, but it may’ve been.

It’s funny, but for a comedian, George was remarkably easy to be around. A lot of comedians are “on” all the time, many to the extent that you might feel the need to slap ’em around, or at least tell them to shut up. George, too, was on all the time, in the sense of the mind always churning and inventing, but he somehow managed to channel it into a sincere attempt to listen to people, even total strangers, and achieved an empathy that usually seemed effortless, but couldn’t have been. He was truly engaged -somehow, he never seemed to be on automatic pilot, even in the sort of fan-performer relations that must’ve gone way beyond repetitious.

In all the years we traveled together, I don’t recall ever seeing him getting uppity or pulling any diva crap backstage. Only saw him lose his temper once, on the discovery that his travel bag, with his notes and papers, had been stolen in whatever strange city we were in (a writer’s worst nightmare – at which point he did kick the living shit out of a random Styrofoam cooler. Stupid cooler, anyway.) Other than that, I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice unless it was in jest.

Or unless he was doing his act. I do remember strolling along the bay with my wife in San Diego on a gorgeous spring evening, heading toward an outdoor show George was doing, arriving a little late. It was an idyllic night, the air balmy and delightful, and as we got nearer to the venue, you could hear his voice being carried by the breeze, louder and louder as we approached the stage, a torrent of epithets and the most bitter, angry, filthy profanity imaginable, and thinking, ah, that’s ol’ George, our buddy, doing his thing, enlightening the populace, what a strange job!

I have speculated from time to time that the frequently abrasive nature of his performances must’ve made therapy largely unnecessary, and it’s true that in civilian life he was unfailingly gentle, kind, and genuine, with an instinctive appreciation of the art of being a regular guy. You could talk to him like a normal person, and he knew how to be quiet sometimes, too (always an important quality in a friend.)

One of my few regrets about George -right up there with not making sure to spend more time with him lately -is that he never got to come to our house. We’d talk about him coming over whenever he’d play in Hyannis, which was once a summer, more or less, but he’d always be in the middle of a round of one-nighters, and it’s usually best to stick with your routine when you’re doing those things (though on the other hand, it’s sometimes really delightful to take a break from it.)

Now I’m feeling like we should’ve shanghai’d him when we had the chance. George was a very neat, orderly person -I believe the word is anal -and I know he would’ve really admired the filth and chaos that one can only acquire with the presence of multiple pets and the absence of any proper sense of modern hygiene. He would’ve liked sitting on our porch and hanging out with the dogs; it might’ve even slowed him down for a few minutes, given him a brief respite from being such a creative dynamo all the time.

My wife reminded me that we once had a George Carlin Memorial Sock Tree in our yard -I suspect the dogs may’ve had something to do with that one -years ago, well before there was any need for him to be memorialized. She remembers that it died pretty quickly, she suspects from the odor of the socks.

Seems like it was fairly widely acknowledged that he was a genius, not to mention smart, entertaining, and prolific beyond any reasonable expectation, years ago. It may take years before we figure out how irreplaceable he is. The part that’s bugging me the most is that he was just such a sweetheart.

Damn.

(Hello up there, boss!)

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