Monday, June 23, 2008

Appreciation: Carlin, from straight comic to icon


LOS ANGELES (AP) — When he shucked the coat and tie for black T-shirts and jeans, grew his hair long and began to riff about those "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV," George Carlin became more than just the countercultural comedian.

Carlin, who died Sunday of heart failure at 71, took comedy itself in a whole new direction.

No longer were nightclubs the territory of guys in suits telling harmless mother-in-law jokes.

"He was more than just a comic. His routines became part of the American lexicon," fellow comedian Paul Rodriguez told The Associated Press on Monday. "They came to say a lot about America and its times."

Indeed, when Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing championship for refusing induction into the U.S. military, Carlin noted that Ali, who made his living beating people up, had refused service because he opposed the Vietnam War.

"He said, 'No, that's where I draw the line. I'll beat 'em up. But I don't want to kill 'em.' And the government said, 'Well, if you won't kill people, we won't let you beat 'em up.'"

Arguably his most famous routine, though, was simply called "Seven Words."

More than just an outpouring of obscenities, it was — as almost all Carlin routines were — a clever play on the sound and meaning of almost every word Carlin used.

One word in the routine, for example (not one of the offending seven) was what he called "a two-way word," explaining: "You can prick your finger. But don't ... "

"Some people think the routines were all about saying dirty words, but it wasn't about that at all," says Jamie Masada, who as owner of the Laugh Factory comedy clubs knew Carlin for more than 20 years.

"He had a different motivation," Masada continued, "and the motivation was free speech. George believed when he was on stage that was like being in his church and he could say anything he wanted there."

It's only appropriate, then, that Carlin's name is attached to a key U.S. Supreme Court free-speech ruling, albeit one limiting the right.

The 1978 decision, the result of a radio station playing "Seven Words," upheld the government's authority to issue sanctions for broadcasting offensive language during hours when children might be listening.

"So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of," Carlin told the AP earlier this year.

Other than that, he said at the time, he had very little interest in public affairs. He claimed to have not voted in a presidential election in decades.

"I was always out of step," he said. "I left school in ninth grade, I got kicked out of the Air Force, I got kicked out of the choir and the altar boys and summer camp and three schools and I was a pot smoker when I was 13 in the early '50s. I was always a lawbreaker and a kind of outlaw rebel."

One thing he was good at, though, was doing funny voices and making funny faces like his boyhood idol, Danny Kaye.

"When I was 10, 11, I was watching MGM movies with Danny Kaye," he said. "I kind of looked at that and thought, `Gee, I can do that.'"

After a brief pairing with comedian Jack Burns, with whom he would remain friends the rest of his life, Carlin went out on his own in 1962, inspired, Burns said Monday, by a Lenny Bruce show the two saw in Chicago in 1961.

By the end of the 1960s, Carlin had grown his hair long, added a beard that he joked covered his acne and began to embrace the countercultural ethos of the time.

"I finally did the right thing, which was to get in touch with my own real voice, and that made me happy for the first time," he once said.

From there, he would go on to record 23 comedy albums, win four Grammys, do 14 TV specials for HBO, write three best-selling books and appear in several movies. Just last week it was announced that Carlin was being awarded the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

"None of that would have happened if I had remained imprisoned in a suit," Carlin said.

As his humor became more observational, nothing was off-limits, from politics to sports to religion, with war and other atrocities frequent targets.

"The very existence of flame-throwers," he once joked, "proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, `You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, I'm just not close enough to get the job done.'"

At the same time, his humor could be gentle when the moment called for it.

He appeared as Mr. Conductor on the children's show "Shining Time Station" in the 1990s and was the voice of Fillmore, the hippie van, in the popular 2006 children's movie "Cars."

From a nightclub stage, however, his humor could always be expected to be scatological. And although his penchant for funny voices and faces might soften it some, it could still be in your face as he ridiculed God, joked about televising suicides and did things like simply ending a routine with a recitation of every synonym for penis.

"He made us look at things, look at ourselves. You won't find too many comics with the kind of chops to do that," said fellow comedian Tommy Chong. "You're only allowed to do that when you've paid your dues."

And indeed Carlin had. Early in their careers, Burns recalled, the two were so broke they shared a one-room apartment with a pullout bed.

"Two guys lying next to each other for three months. You can bet we made jokes about that," he laughed.

Carlin went on to develop a serious cocaine addiction, and as recently as 2004 he entered rehab to break what he called a dependency on vicodan and wine.

Despite those struggles, Carlin, who suffered the first of several heart attacks when he was only 41, said the coronary artery disease that finally killed him was the result not of drugs but of genetics.

"My father gave me this disease," he told the AP in 2007. "But he also gave me my gift of gab, my sense of humor. So what the ... . It was a good trade-off."

Monday, June 02, 2008

Newbury Street icon Louis seeks someplace trendier

Louis Boston, a fixture on Newbury Street (in Boston) that helped usher luxury retail into the city, will move out of its historic building when its lease expires in 2010, opening up the marquee 40,000 square foot space for the first time in 20 years. (more)

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent dies at 71


PARIS (AP) — Legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent, who reworked the rules of fashion by putting women into elegant pantsuits that came to define how modern women dressed, died Sunday evening, a longtime friend and associate said. He was 71.

Pierre Berge said Saint Laurent died at his Paris home following a long illness.

A towering figure of 20th century fashion, Saint Laurent was widely considered the last of a generation that included Christian Dior and Coco Chanel and made Paris the fashion capital of the world, with the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, as its elegant headquarters.

In the fast-changing world of haute couture, Saint Laurent was hailed as the most influential and enduring designer of his time. From the first YSL tuxedo and his trim pantsuits to see-through blouses, safari jackets and glamorous gowns, Saint Laurent created instant classics that remain stylish decades later.

When the designer announced his retirement in 2002 at age 65 and the closure of the Paris-based haute couture house he had founded 40 years earlier, it was mourned in the fashion world as the end of an era. His ready-to-wear label, Rive Gauche, which was sold to Gucci in 1999, still has boutiques around the world.

In October 2006, Saint Laurent slipped and fell outside a Paris restaurant during Fashion Week, suffering slight scratches but reminding fans of the perennially fragile designer's advancing age.

Saint Laurent was born Aug. 1, 1936, in Oran, Algeria, where his father worked as a shipping executive. He first emerged as a promising designer at the age of 17, winning first prize in a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat for a cocktail dress design.

A year later in 1954, he enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale school of haute couture, but student life lasted only three months. He was introduced to Christian Dior, then regarded as the greatest creator of his day, and Dior was so impressed with Saint Laurent's talent that he hired him on the spot.

When Dior died suddenly in 1957, Saint Laurent was named head of the House of Dior at the age of 21. The next year, his first solo collection for Dior — the "trapeze" line — launched Saint Laurent's stardom. The trapeze dress — with its narrow shoulders and wide, swinging skirt — was a hit, and a breath of fresh air after years of constructed clothing, tight waists and girdles.

In 1960, Saint Laurent was drafted into military service — an experience that shattered the delicate designer, who by the end of the year was given a medical discharge for nervous depression.

Bouts of depression marked his career. Berge, the designer's longtime business partner and former romantic partner, was quoted as saying that Saint Laurent was born with a nervous breakdown.

Saint Laurent returned to the spotlight in 1962, opening his own haute couture fashion house with Berge. The pair later started a chain of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear boutiques.

Life Magazine hailed his first line under his own label as "the best collection of suits since Chanel."

Berge has said that Saint Laurent's gift to fashion was that he empowered women after Chanel had freed them.

Nowhere was Saint Laurent's gift more evident than the valedictory fashion show that marked his retirement in January 2002.

Forty years of fashion were paraded in a 300-piece retrospective that blurred the boundaries of time, mixing his creations of yesterday and today in one stunning tribute to the endurance of Saint Laurent's style. He also designed costumes for theater and film.

There was the simple navy blue pea coat over white pants, which the designer first showed in 1962 when he opened his couture house and kept as one of his hallmarks.

His "smoking," or tuxedo jacket, of 1966 remade the tux as a high fashion statement for both sexes. It remained the designer's trademark item and was updated yearly until he retired.

Also from the 60s came Beatnik chic — a black leather jacket and knit turtleneck with high boots — and sleek pantsuits that underlined Saint Laurent's statement on equality of the sexes. He showed that women could wear "men's clothes," which when tailored to the female form became an emblem of elegant femininity.

"More than any other designer since Chanel, YSL represented Paris as the style leader," The Independent of London wrote in an editorial after Saint Laurent's retirement. "By putting a woman in a man's tuxedo, he changed fashion forever, in a style that never dated."

In his own words, Saint Laurent said he felt "fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful, but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves."

Some of his revolutionary style was met with resistance. There are famous stories of women wearing Saint Laurent pantsuits who were turned away from hotels and restaurants in London and New York.

One scandal centered on the designer himself, when he posed nude and floppy-haired for a photographer in 1971, wearing only his trademark thick black glasses, to promote his perfume.

Saint Laurent's rising star was eternalized in 1983, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a show to his work, the first ever to a living designer.

Subsequent shows at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and in Beijing made him a French national treasure, and he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 1985.

When France basked in the glory of its 1998 World Cup soccer final, it was Saint Laurent who took center field pre-kick off with an on-field retrospective at the Stade de France.

In 1999, Saint Laurent sold the rights of his label to Gucci Group NV, ceding control of his Rive Gauche collection, fragrances, cosmetics and accessories for US$70 million cash and royalties.

Industry insiders cited friction between Saint Laurent and Gucci's creative director, Tom Ford, as a likely factor in the fashion guru's decision to retire three years later. Ford stepped down in 2003.

When he bowed out of fashion in 2002, Saint Laurent spoke of his battles with depression, drugs and loneliness, though he gave no indication that those problems were directly tied to his decision to stop working.

"I've known fear and terrible solitude," he said. "Tranquilizers and drugs, those phony friends. The prison of depression and hospitals. I've emerged from all this, dazzled but sober."

Associated Press writers Rachid Aouli and Joelle Diderich contributed to this report.