Sunday, December 25, 2011

Back to the Basics of Love: Big Bird and Waylon Jennings in Reagan's America

We watched Follow That Bird this evening -- a 1985 Seasame Street feature length adventure which proved too harrowing for its intended audience in our apartment, but kept a few of us riveted until the end.

Follow That Bird features a cavalcade of its era's favorite and most affordable comedy stars in cameos, including John Candy, Chevy Chase (looking particularly sly), Sandra Bernhard, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas, and Laraine Newman.

The Street did not pull any punches about what was happening in the Heartland at the height of the Reagan Era. Big Bird got tangled in some sort of nest swapping scheme, resulting in being transplated from the singing, multicultural neighborhood of clever, happy monsters and charming salt-of-the-earth neighbors to a suburban cage with the Dodo family.

Those Dodo Reagan Democrats might have meant well by taking under their collective wings a very tall city kid, but they were so blank and insensitive and just plain stupid -- their lack of short-term memory, a suitably Reaganesque and most marked mental fault --  that Bid Bird had to risk it all in order to get back to the City. 

The Wizard of Oz references flashing, Big Bird does make some friends on the way home, but the plot driver is his kidnapping by the bumbling and evil (F)unfair-owning Sleaze Brothers, looking very ContraGate congressional.

The message of the film was old school P.C. clear: That the beautiful mess of a city animated and motivated by the diversity of its citizens was the only place where any self-respecting liberal hero would want to live. Yes, there were nice people on the farm on which Big Bird landed and hid like a a runaway slave. After all, this was the was the moment of Farm Aid and Footloose, too. But just hang tight until you make it back to the bridges and tunnels if you know what's good for you.

The musical highlight of the film captured the first moments of Big Bird's quest for freedom and was delivered by none other than the great Waylon Jennings. Waylon was the dirty outlaw of country music long after Johnny Cash had cleaned up, Willie Nelson had become a pop star, and Kris Kristofferson had become a movie star. He drives Big Bird in a turkey truck and teaches some existential wisdom -- "that there ain't no road too long..."

Anyone with a career as long and varied as Waylon Jennings' would be bound to have some deadspots, and 1977's Ol' Waylon may not be Blonde on Blonde, but nonetheless, what a record. The hit must have been
"Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)."

For me, the album enters the realm of classics with "If You See Me Getting Smaller:"

An ode with Willie Nelson called upon as witness -- a trick Cash and Kristofferson played as well -- you can't beat these lyrics with any by any other road warrior, all time: 

Willie we've been constant companions in all the light and shade
We have spent a million dollars to find out what we made
We have made the maidens marvel at the things we do and say
Down down and out brother up up and away

If you see me gettin' smaller
I'm leavin' don't be grieving
Just got to get away from here
If you see me gettin' smaller don't worry

I'm in hurry I've got the right to disappear

God bless old Philadelphia they were standing in the rain
Out in front of the Main Point, a wet and lonely train
Who knows who they came to see a mad man full of beer
A four piece band and a charter bus my border-line career

I guess Waylon must have had the right price for this gig along with the rest of the cast of Follow That Bird, but that a "mad man full of beer" could have carried our Great American Yellow Bird out of his sad Reaganite stupor must have been a stroke of genius from someone somewhere. God bless old Philadelphia, indeed.

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