Thursday, August 19, 2010

Biography: 7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin by James Sullivan

It's difficult to imagine a time when George Carlin (1937-2008) won’t be missed. He was more than a comedian. He commented on our life and times with a brutal honesty and an insight that cut through the sheep-like suits we humans can often don.

7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin, journalist and biographer James Sullivan’s intimate look at Carlin’s art and life, does not always crackle. He delves beyond what was often an explosive public persona and brings us elements of Carlin the man. It’s a rare and intimate portrait that not all fans will eat up. After all, for all his veneration as the country’s chief critic of counterculture, in his personal life, most often, there was a lot less going on. A couple of addictions, sure. But then he dealt with them. For the most part, Carlin worked very hard at making it all look so easy. He was a perfectionist and he studied and reworked and retooled all of the material he seemed to toss off without effort.
Like a master craftsman, Carlin worked with words. He held them up to the light. He inspected them, rubbed them, and whittled them. He worshipped them, in a way that he felt precious few products of the human mind deserved to be worshipped.
The book is, of course, named for Carlin’s best known routine, the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” which became better known as “Seven Dirty Words.” The routine first appeared on Carlin’s 1972 album Class Clown, but over the years it drew attention, controversy and eventually triggered a landmark supreme court ruling on broadcast indecency.

Sullivan’s portrait feels honest and his interpretations seem right on the mark. “To Carlin,” Sullivan writes, “American mediocrity was a real disappointment. We’ve sold our souls, he said, for cheap thrills and false beliefs.” There will never be another quite like him.

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