Wikipedia generally gives a nice overview of some of these early Saturday Night Live episodes, but not in this case.
Even so, that’s alright.
We’ll make do.
It might be enough to focus on the divide between droll host Dick Cavett (his pitch for “his” Nebraska Pimp book as part of “Looks on Books” kinda sums it up) and impassioned musical guest Jimmy Cliff.
Cavett is that sort of personality that everyone likes. Always a warm smile. A wry smile, perhaps. A smart guy, but not too smart. Cavett was, in some ways, in the exact middle of the cultural road.
He was just hip enough to be marginally “with it” in a revolutionary era (witness the Weekend Update attempts to cover “war-torn” Luanda, Angola) steaming with frustration.
And so the natural way to play off his image is to have him do risqué things. For example, the skit “Our Town” substitutes New York City for the Grover’s Corners of playwright Thornton Wilder.
Cavett describes the more prurient details of NYC. At one point, it is fairly obvious that he is describing the old Times Square full of sex shops and massage parlors. As always, the exercise of watching this show gives us an opportunity to reflect on days gone by. For example, this must have been around the time of a sanitation workers strike in the Big Apple.
[Speaking of Big Apple, the home movie sent in by someone (whose name I have forgotten) makes nice use of apples (and plums) as actors in a stop-motion Super-8 experiment.]
But yes…Dick Cavett is kind of like a bathroom sanitizer. You’re glad he’s there (when the place is sullied), but he is generally harmless and flavorless.
What is staggering about this episode is that I remember a friend from college who (on second thought) reminds me quite a bit of Cavett. The craziest part is that Jimmy Cliff does a song in this episode which played a part in my college days (funny enough, in relation to the aforementioned gentleman).
It’s funny how the mundane can make us sentimental. However, Jimmy Cliff is not at all himself mundane on the song in question: “Many Rivers to Cross”.
Jimmy Cliff couldn’t be more different in persona from Dick Cavett. Cliff delivers the first great, desperate performance in SNL history. Sure, Simon & Garfunkel were great in the early season, but they were pretty…composed…easily poised.
On “Many Rivers to Cross” Jimmy Cliff sings like his life depends on it. The guitars are out of tune. The drummer is barely in control of the song. A bongo player (who alternates on timbales…with brushes) adds a bit of flavor. The SNL horns (Howard Shore’s band) add some nice stabs and swells of excitement.
But it is Jimmy Cliff. Singing right in tune. Dead serious. Pinging each note in absolute perfection.
Closing his eyes. Lifting his head back. Singing so the veins bulge out in his neck. …ending the performance out of breath.
Cliff absolutely deserved to perform the three songs he did on this episode. However, neither of the other two match the intensity of “Many Rivers to Cross”.
And so it takes me back.
These memories I mentioned. They’re important to me.
If I’d only chosen to have my taxes done by H. & L. Brock…I coulda been a contenda.
How do we become losers?
Is it from the very first hand we’re dealt?
Some things feel like a lost cause.
Life is unkind. Sometimes.
But what I want to know is…will it pay off?
Jimmy Cliff was ready when the opportunity arose.
How significant was this performance for the acceptance of reggae in America?
It doesn’t matter.
Those questions don’t matter.
What matters is what each one of us feels…in little moments of reflection.
I’d like to think that I’d belt it out just like Jimmy Cliff.
That’s when you give it all you have.
It’s when your passion raises you head and shoulders above the rest.
It’s a passion. A hunger. Of going from nothing to something.
I think quite a few of us feel like nothings.
It’s all we ever get to be.
I can only speak for myself.
No wife. No kids.
In school for the millionth time.
And my dreams seem light years away…in the rearview mirror.
Will I find them again down the road?
Is this a loop? A mere episode?