I think I was in 5th or maybe 6th grade when I first heard this one too. I got it from my friend Robbie, who didn't like it much maybe and wanted to give me something to make sure our friendship was cemented. (We didn't stay real close but we ended up hanging out some in high school. He was present for the famous "Highway Ice-Sliding Split-Brain Incident" of January 1984, still one of my finest moments.)

I brought this album home and put it on immediately. My brothers and I were pretty obsessed with Bill Cosby, and we couldn't wait to hear this record. The first side is pretty good, a number of shorter sketches in front of a live audience in Cleveland. He does his Cosby thing with the noises and the wry observations and all, but he was lean and hungry then, already a superstar but still with a big edge.

Well, actually, not really an edge; nothing here is shouting "Death to racists" or "Fuck the Man" or anything. I think he considered himself above all that, and wanted to provide a good example in those days of turmoil and trouble. (Reminds me of an article I'm doing at work about Sidney Poitier, but I don't know enough about that whole scene to pontificate.) But there is a lot of anger here that peeks through at weird moments.

And some of it is just the fact that Cosby is a weird dude. He's strangely anti-woman -- the sketch about how his daughters learn to swim ends with a bizarre throwaway thing about how "I wanted sons but my wife gave me these two losers" is met with troubled laughter but also applause, people wanted to think they were edgy too. Or maybe they also just thought girls really were losers. Also, the Adam and Eve thing is just all about WOMEN = SMART/INCONSTANT, MEN = DUMB/LOYAL, hahaha whatever. But then he saves it with the great God voice going "Okay everyone..." Well, I won't spoil it for you. It's too great a laugh line.

That's what this album shows, though; it's a bravura freakin' performance about how to work an audience like a rented mule. He jokes with the people up in "the cheap seats," he tosses off surreal throwaway lines, doubles back on himself in a carefully controlled way, nails every line with perfect timing. He's got three instruments: the microphone, often used as a percussion device or a special effect studio (he growls close into it to create echoes, etc.), the audience, and his own prodigious brain.

This is never more evident than on the title track, which takes up the second side with an incredible story about him and his brother and the bed they shared. For 26 minutes, he is the biggest rock star in the world doing the world's greatest solo. He gently reminds people that he grew up in the ghetto, but doesn't want any sympathy or anything; it's just about the details. (Plus, it was a pretty okay ghetto, what with a piano and linoleum floors and everything. Cos wasn't rockin' any projects I've ever been in or anything.)

As the thing goes on, carefully laid out in four segments that each ratchet up the drama and the hilarity -- the brothers fight over the bed, their father gets madder, they break the bed, etc. -- the audience and the listener at home are both in the same position: leaning forward farther and farther without even realizing it, wanting to know what happens next...and then...and then....

My dad loves Bill Cosby and ended up stealing a lot of mannerisms from him in the way he tells stories, but I think I've taken more. When I go on school visits and talk about my childhood and how it led me to be a not-very-successful children's-book author, that's my whole steez right there, housed from Cos.

Except, I hope, without the misogyny and the implied social conservativism.

1 comment:

RodneyJ said...

I haven't heard this, but I'd just like to point out how much I heart his movie Bill Cosby: Himself. I'm so sad that his legacy has become Jello + sweaters + stupid rant. People forget how great a comedian he was.