The Summers of Sam

It’s interesting for me to reflect today on the death of Sam Kinison. He met his maker 24 years ago today when a 17-year-old drunk driver crossed the centerline of Route 95 near Needles, California and smashed head-on into Kinison and his new wife.

Kinison’s supposed final words were: “Why now? I don’t want to die. Why?”

I was the age of that drunk driver at the time he killed the man Rodney Dangerfield called a comedic genius.

I am now older than Kinison was when he expired on that deserted stretch of road.

Somewhere in between, I went from thinking that April 10, 1992 would be my version of the day John Lennon was shot to thinking, “Jesus, I can’t believe I listened to this guy.”

To feel any kind of empathy for Kinison often seems like feeling sad for a scorpion that stung itself to death.

He was cold and cruel to fans and critics alike. He didn’t have degrees of personality, but rather an on/off switch for rage. He divorced twice, was a heavy user of any chemical he could get his hands on and he fathered a child with the wife of his best friend.

His act was a series of misogynistic, jingoist and homophobic rants. It has been years since I heard them, but they stick in my head, even when I wish they wouldn’t.

He said that the only two ways you could get AIDS was to “take a large load of infected semen up the fucking ass” or “shooting up with guys who suck dick for drug money.”

He basically approached world hunger by telling people, “Maybe there wouldn’t be world hunger if you people lived where the food is… We have deserts in America, we just don’t live in them, asshole.”

He once told a woman in the audience, “Trust me the last thing you want is my complete and undivided fucking attention…”

He was right-wing beyond right-wing: “This is America, Goddammit. Reagan is president and Clint Eastwood has his own police force.”

His act today would have gone not only nowhere but it would have probably gotten him held up as the exact example of everything wrong with everything in the world.

Still, Kinison was something to behold and at the age of 17, I wanted to behold it in person. I planned to turn 18 and see one of his shows that summer. Turns out, I never got the chance. Back then I was devastated. Now, I’m not so sure what I would do if given the chance.

The only thing that really bothers me is how he has been lost through time, unless someone needs an example of a comic who was (fill in the noun)-ist. It might be true that he was all those things we accuse him of, but was he any worse than anyone else we still revere or watch?

Richard Pryor (like Kinison, a native of the Peoria area), told stories about shooting up his wife’s car to prevent her from leaving. We laughed.

Eddie Murphy had two homophobic rants on his first two albums: Faggots and Faggots (revisited). He told his audience that “Faggots aren’t allowed to look at my ass while I’m up here.” In “Raw,” he told his viewers that he’s not allowed to go to San Francisco anymore, “They got 24-hour homo-watch going on with me…”

Dozens of other comics moved from “Take my wife, please” to “The bitch stole my mayo” and we were all as relatively comfortable with it as we could be. A million albums here, a sold out concert there, we took it in.

Oddly enough, the only guy who seemed to make us laugh without any of that was Bill Cosby. Good grief…

Kinison had four albums and only one of them really seemed to hit the mark: “Have You Seen Me Lately?” His first “Louder than Hell” was his first attempt at translating his raw energy to vinyl, a Sisyphus-like task to say the least. When he got to “Lately,” he had good, timely material, a willing and interesting audience and great producer. It sold like crazy, which led to the inevitable, “Quick, get another one out there!” problem of selling the wine before its time. (It also didn’t help that the riches brought in by “Lately” and the tours plied him with enough cash to feed a burgeoning substance-abuse problem.) The result was “Leader of the Banned,” a horrible follow up that was more scream than humor. It was uneven, unfocused and really weak material.

When he died, he was working on another album, which became “Live from Hell.” The problem was he hadn’t done enough work on it to make it what it needed to be, so it basically was pumped out after his death like he was Elvis or Jimi Hendrix or something. It’s got its moments, but it’s not there.

The reason I bring this up is because it makes it almost impossible to reconsider Kinison, not to say that we have a ton of people who want to. It’s easier to go back through the many phases of Pryor or Murphy, who took on different roles in TV, movies and comedy. Stand up was only part of the game and in Pryor’s case, there was a lot more there to examine. To hear Kinison now is like listening to a cassette that had been dubbed from a dubbed original: You get the sound, but you don’t get much else. What is there is likely distorted.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to accurately place him. Each time I think back on what he meant to me as a 17-year-old asshole of a kid, I think about how he just bucked the trends and made me feel better about myself. Each time I listen to his stuff now, I have trouble reconciling what I know and feel now with what he said to provoke laughter.

Maybe, like so many other things, I just grew out of that stage and now am embarrassed to look back. Then again, maybe I needed him at that stage to become the wiser and better person I am now.

One thought on “The Summers of Sam

  1. It was a time when wretched excess and outrageousness for its own sake worked–to a degree. The other part of the difficulty of just listening to Kinison today is that he was a very physical performer, so a good deal of what he was doing is lost to audio. All that said, I doubt that he was a particularly likeable guy, and if cocaine makes assholes of ordinary people, what does cocaine do to assholes? He was raised to be an old-school tent revival preacher, so I doubt that Christian tolerance was high on a list of his attributes. Today, his attacks on out groups seem both intentionally cruel and clang hard against current sensibilities, and there’s no real way to know if his attitudes and material would have changed with the times.

    There was a guy, though, who was achieving some notice at the same time as was Kinison, and who was raised in the same kind of Christian environment, and who died early, too, and around the same time, who didn’t go in his direction, and that was Bill Hicks. I can still listen to Hicks, and I think there’s a crucial difference between the two that’s more apparent now than twenty-five years ago: Kinison’s material often depended upon attacking victims, while Hicks’ attacked the victimizers. If fate had not intervened in Kinison’s life, and biology in Hicks’, my guess is that Kinison would have burned himself out and become irrelevant, while Hicks would still be making trenchant observations about how power worked in society.

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