by Michael Ryerson

As in ‘stuff’, not as in, well…shit. Just stuff on a Sunday morning. My subject lines usually just come up out of some place I don’t really know, they just kind of pop onto the page and they’re somehow apt to me (maybe only to me) and I don’t really have any explanation for them, so I leave em. Now this one I do kind of understand, see I was reading George Carlin this morning, that’s right ‘reading’ George Carlin (seems a poor excuse for really getting George Carlin but ya gotta go with what ya got). I was looking for a specific thing he said about words, kind of an adjunct to his famous riff on the seven deadly words, just a little aside he threw in there that I couldn’t really pull back up and it seems sort of important to me right now so I was looking for it and I got to reading this legal brief where he’d been charged with something or another, probably consorting with loose words in a public place, and in the court filings was this ‘Appendix to the Opinion of the Court’ and the ‘Appendix…’ was prepared by the FCC and it was a compilation of some of George’s routines (presumably to demonstrate his lack of semantic lawfulness) and I got to reading it, hoping that the little aside I was looking for was in it (it wasn’t) and I got to laughing out loud. Not uproariously (is that a word?) but still out loud. I can hear Carlin’s voice pretty much whenever I want, it’s so distinctive and I’ve heard it so many times over the years, it just comes back to me, so reading his stuff is really close to having him doing it on a tape. So I guess this first part is about laughing at the written word, or maybe more generally, getting an actual viseral reaction from the written word.

Guy gave me a ‘CD’ last week. He’s a good friend and he knows, among my many peculiarities, I really like Neil Young (there should be some kind of disclaimer here, I know, but I’m going to have to come up with a good one and then save it somewhere so I can just c&p it whenever I talk about Neil Young). Any way, he gives me this ‘CD’ (the quotation marks are there for a reason) along with a bunch of other stuff and just mentions he saw it in a bargain bin and thought maybe I’d like it and so he got it for me and it gets carried home and tossed in the big woven basket on my desk and I kind of forget about it. Stuff bubbles to the surface of that basket pretty regularly, so I knew it would make another appearance and yesterday afternoon it did. I saw the corner of the case sticking out from under some papers and decided to give it a listen but, lo and behold, it ain’t a ‘CD’, it’s a DVD! Holy shit (there’s that word again. thanks George) so I take it in the den and put in the deck and let it run while I’m doing some other things. It’s a nice little DVD of a recent show (just before his brain surgery) and has a lot of material from Prairie Wind and some old stuff, too. I just let it run. He doesn’t look good. My wife walks through the den, at one point, and says, ‘Who’s that?’ quite innocently. I was kind of stunned and I had to look at him again to see that she really wasn’t recognising him. ‘It’s Neil Young,’ I answer and she hits the line drive with, ‘Wow, he’s old.’ I almost said, ‘well, yeah but he’s been sick’ but I didn’t, I just went with ‘yeah. He is old.’ Where have the years gone? Listening to his music, of course, takes me back and listening to his audience also brings up some issues with the way we hear our music. Local station here that plays oldies, plays Sgt. Pepper maybe a hundred times a day, and in that first cut you can hear the audience reacting to some things that must have been going on, on the stage, you know, laughter and cheering as Paul mugs it up for them in his darling little uniform and then a big cheer when the lyrics say ‘we’d love to take you home with us, we’d love to take you home.’ wink, wink, nod, nod, of course those little girls would go in a heartbeat, it was their daydream, after all, he was the cute one. But you can hear the reaction and it’s kind of cool after all these years to hear how it was received that first time. We imprint music so quickly it’s hard to remember how something affected us the first time we heard it. Music can be revelatory and sometimes we can remember where we were the first time we heard something that was really special. I remember, pretty much, the first time I heard the lyrics, ‘Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep…’ and, ‘There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware…’, I pretty much knew these were special and people would remember this song for a long time. In the den, Neil is talking to the audience, so I stroll in and listen, he’s talking to them like they’re old friends and I think pretty much they are, he’s been around a long time (just ask my wife) and people who go to his shows know what they’re going to get and secretly they’re hoping for some of the old stuff to take them back to a time when they were younger and Neil’s hair was longer and his chin didn’t sag. He’s on stage with a big old long line of studio musicians and his wife Pegi and EmmyLou Harris, so it’s not your little intimate album but it has a certain charm. If you’re a fan, anyway. He noodles around on his guitar, smiling, looking at the people on the stage with him and then, without any fanfare, he hits the opening chord to a huge hit from thirty years ago and, of course, the audience, feeling that surge of recognition, of shared times and youth, bursts into spontaneous cheers and applause, pretty much a roar. And I’m thinking how many times he must have played this exact progression, and how little he can let it change because it works so well and it’s become so important to so many of us that have loved it and made love with it playing somewhere and how he’s got to keep it somehow fresh but without changing it. And in the cheers there’s another funny little sound, kind of a groan of recognition. They say laughter is an affirmation of shared value, well hearing that opening chord with a crowd of peers brings something akin to that same shared release. Well, that was yesterday I played the DVD for the first time. This morning, skipping church (I’m gathering my energy for Easter next week) I’m letting it play again. He never really had a good voice, even in his youth. Hard to describe how he gets away with it. His phrasing, I guess, plays a big part in his success and the lyrics are so frequently nonsense but beautiful nonsense, nonetheless. The studio musicians who have played with him for so many years are trading glances with one another now as the audience reacts to yet another of the old songs, kind of shaking their heads and nodding to each other as if to say, ‘Jesus, it still works…’ Neil is smiling at Pegi, this is the first one, honey, this is where the ranch came from, this is the one they’ll never forget. She has a nice stage presence, a nice voice and she knows how to chip in when his voice can’t quite cut it. But she’s only going to back up the big one, for this one he turns to EmmyLou and they sing a little duet and there are tears in her eyes as it goes together so sweetly.

I found the Carlin quote I was looking for finally, but I can’t remember exactly why I was looking for it now. Funny how that works…

He starts off with…

“I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I uh, I think is important. I I say, they’re my work, they’re my play, they’re my passion. Words are all we have really. “

And then he hits it for me…

“We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid. You know, [humming]. And, then we assign a word to a thought, [clicks tongue]. And we’re stuck with that word for that thought. So be careful with words. I like to think, yeah, the same words that hurt can heal. It’s a matter of how you pick them.”

Michael Ryerson