Norm Macdonald made me laugh a lot over the years, though I didn’t always feel good about myself afterward. Some of his bits were senselessly cruel, and he wasn’t above making you giggle by repeatedly miming himself giving a shoe salesman a blowjob.
But since he died I’ve watched the notorious “Moth Joke” many times, and I never get tired of it. The punchline isn’t what gets me, though the punchline is perfect; it’s watching him get there that’s the point. Like “The Aristocrats,” the joke is really just a framework that allows for endless improvisation. Legend has it that Conan suddenly needed to fill the last segment on his show, and so Norm tailored his delivery to fit on the spot.
My favorite part is his smirk as he toys with the audience. He knows that the premise was set up in the first seven words and that the punchline is going to kill no matter what he does; his only goal is to stretch things out long enough that you forget where he started. And so even the stumbles, awkward pauses, and intentional butchering of Russian names serve a larger purpose.
This, my friends, is how you tell a joke.
We’ve lost a lot of legends this year: Charlie Watts, Ed Asner, Toots Hibbert, Bunny Wailer, The Gift of Gab, Biz Markie, and Shock G, just off the top of my head. And Michael K. Williams, fucking Omar, and now Norm, it never ends….
But no departure has mattered to me as much as that of Lee “Scratch” Perry, whom I truly believed to be immortal. In 2011 he told GQ:
I create immortality — never grow old, never get cold, never tired, never weary. I am my music. My music refuse to die, my music refuse to be an adult, my music will be a baby for all the time.
How could you not believe him? All the evidence seemed to back him up.
One of Scratch’s defining characteristics was an insane productivity, especially during the Black Ark period (1975–1979), when he had the tapes rolling day and night. Robert Palmer (yes that Robert Palmer, Power Station Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer, but also “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” Robert Palmer, lest we forget), who recorded at the Black Ark, described the atmosphere this way: (more…)
I don’t think I ever heard this song — vintage 1972 — until a few weeks ago. I did a double-take at this part:
Misinformation followed us like a plague
Nobody knew from time to time
If the plans were changed
Trés now, no? Life remains full of surprises.
Continuing on the theme of old songs that seem especially relevant today — this one came up on shuffle in the car recently, and I was struck by how much it resonates with our current climate of misinformation and mistrust. The only part that seems out of step with 2021 is the hopeful tone of the ending. But as music is wont to do, it will make you feel hopeful for a moment, even if you know better.
Lately as I gaze out at the shrunken reddish sun trying to insinuate itself through the smoke, I find myself thinking of this song. When Bowie wrote it slightly less than 50 years ago, it was science fiction. But today if news came across the wires that Earth would uninhabitable in five years, would anyone be that surprised? The recent UN climate report wasn’t too far off, but there are no riots in the streets. Cops are not kissing the feet of priests, and no one is vomiting.
Or at least that’s not happening here… though maybe it is in the big cities. From this vantage point it seems more like a quiet, slow-motion apocalypse. There will be plenty of time, at least, to assemble the proper playlist.