Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Doc Nagel's Top 100 Things

23. Heroes. I just love 'em.

George Carlin's death has me thinking about heroes, strangely, because in the grand scheme of things, Carlin wasn't a hero of mine, though he was close. I respected him a lot, and to me, he was incredibly funny. He was at the center of a landmark free speech/obscenity case, but wasn't really a participant - more the occasion or object.

I don't tend to regard heroes as paragons of virtue, or necessarily morally righteous. This is lucky for me, because I don't think any of mine would pass a virtue/righteousness test. I'm just whipping this out, so I might glaringly omit someone, but let's see if I can list them.

Lenny Bruce. Lenny was not only involved in a landmark free speech/obscenity case, but the only person ever convicted of obscenity in the US for any performance or publication not containing pornographic images (depending on your perspective, I suppose). His final appeal was granted posthumously. In any case, Lenny's act, and to a large degree his everyday behavior (if reports are, in the main, honest), focused on the moral contradictions of American culture and social life, by which he was in turns amused and horrified. And he made it all funny, until he stopped being funny. Lenny Bruce is such a hero to me, I even like his stuff after he stopped being a comic and became Lenny Bruce instead.

John Fahey. For my money, Fahey's guitar playing is the weirdest there could be, not because his playing techniques were particularly odd, but because his musical sensibilities and impulses were fundamentally crackers. I wouldn't say I aspire to play like Fahey. I don't think I'll ever be as good (even though Fahey wasn't really a technical virtuoso), but I'll never be that creative. Fahey also wrote bizarre, if not actually insane, rambling quasi-autobiographical screeds, some of which are published as a book called How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.

Frank Lloyd Wright. Almost everything Wright said about architecture, especially his own, was either an outright lie or self-promotional puffery. I don't care. He was reportedly mercurial in his relationships with other people, often instantly enraged by loved ones, employees, and employers. I don't care. He blithely ignored clients' design requirements or preferences, and imposed his own style, proportion, and uncomfortable furniture on them. I don't care. His places are drafty and they leak. I don't care. I can't go near or into a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright without feeling whole, solid, ready, aware, lively, and inspired. They don't have to be particularly similar for this to happen, either: Fallingwater packs a huge wallop, but I feel much the same at the Marin County Civic Center.

Julia Child. I cut my teeth on Julia Child's cooking shows on TV when I was a kid. One of my earliest satirical ideas was a spoof of her shows, combined with Monty Hall's old joint, to be called Let's Bake A Seal. Her actual life story is pretty amazing. She was a defense intelligence agent after World War II, fell in love with another defense intelligence agent, who ended up stationed in Paris (I think under cover). So she played housewife awhile, got bored, and went to the Cordon Bleu cooking school. They came back to the states, and eventually she started teaching people to cook on TV. She made mistakes, she dropped stuff, and she wrote and showed you how to fix things when things went wrong. She was a brilliant cook, fearless but not flawless, and her recipes always work (even if they cheat somewhat).

John Meyer. After a year of being thoroughly bored in eighth grade, my junior high school put me in the higher level courses, which I think were called GT classes, for ninth. So it was that I had 9th grade US history with John Meyer, late morning, in a trailer out behind the main classroom building. In that trailer, he taught a lesson one particularly stifling hot, humid late spring morning, by turning the classroom into a sweatshop, dividing the class into production lines, and requiring us to manufacture "Happy Books." This was too much for the upper-middle-class white girls to handle, and the complaints came in from their folks. They hated him. I had a sudden realization that I wanted to teach for a living. I had AP European History with him in high school, which wasn't as revelatory, but was still one of a handful of classes that were taught by people who showed any respect at all for the emerging intellects of the students.

Tom Waits. If I could write lyrics like anybody I chose, it'd be like Tom Waits (and I suppose Kathleen Brennan, since they write most things together). If I could make music any way I liked, I would make music like Waits' - not the particular style, not all the racket, but the sheer fuckitity of his approach. He described what he started to do with music around 1990 or so as taking away all the stuff that's obviously musical, and making music out of what's left over. I admire the bejezus out of that. I wish I could do that. (Sometimes it happens when I teach, I think. It's cool as hell.)

Of course I've had other heroes, mainly hockey players like Mike Palmateer, but that was as a kid. I suppose some people outgrow having heroes at some point. I haven't, and I don't think I will (Fahey just became a hero a couple years ago).


Anonymous said...

fuckitity is my new favorite word

Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

Alot of the people for whom Carlin was a hero appreciated him for the wrong reasons. "YAY! We get to use potty words and pretend to be intellectuals!" Um, no.