Just when you think all things are lost, Mason Williams sends me a CD from his refuge in the Pacific Northwest. They are Christmas songs. Christmas in September. Never mind. All good Christmas songs work to cheer us up at anytime of the year.
It’s a good time to pull them out.
This is Mason Williams after all. You might recall when he was head comedy writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late 1960s. He hired people like Steve Martin to write jokes for the show. Then again, Mason wrote cool guitar music too. The show was an abundance of talent. Recall “Classical Gas”? Gosh they must have had fun – to have Harry Nilsson and George Harrison to drop by and play some tunes. Mason Williams is a great artist across the board – a great friend of Dennis Hopper and Ed Ruscha.
Tommy Smothers, who always played the clueless twit to his more allegedly somber brother, Dick. Of course it was an act, and it worked. “Mom always liked you better!” But there was trouble afoot in the real world. It was Tommy who decided to take on the CBS Television Network.
Let me tell you, I once worked for CBS Radio. Their New York headquarters was called Black Rock, sort of the Gibraltar of the broadcast industry. What that means is you did not screw with these people and not expect repercussions. They could come down hard on you. It’s an old story. CBS came down hard on the Smothers Brothers with their incessant attacks on Richard Nixon and his hapless war in Vietnam. Gee, that’s got a familiar ring to it.
Sipping the Smothers Brothers wines years later in the old Hillcrest Bar on Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights, Tommy told me he had planned to move the show in 1968 out of Los Angeles, and take it to the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina. Tommy said he was in Mayor Joe Alioto’s office to settle this deal. Alas the phone call came to Tommy in Mayor Joe’s office. He, Tommy, that is, and Dickie were fired. (No one could fire Joe Alioto – a great character.) Tommy was relentless, a true iconoclast. Tommy would not budge to compromise. A real tough customer.
Like Dick Cavett, the Smothers Brothers stuck to their guns, but the penalties could be high. Integrity comes at a high price. It’s one of those things they never seem to teach you in school. Gee that’s a long list; that is, the things they never teach in school. Let’s not get too far afield, Bruce.
By the way, I’ll bet that conversation between Tommy Smothers and Joe Alioto must have been grand. I remember with a warm heart Mayor Joe and I would sit on occasion in the old, now-defunct Jack-in-the-Box on Lombard in the Marina. Joe would kvell over his grandchildren and show me all the treasures that he bought at Lucca Deli on Chestnut Street. It’s true he could quote Cicero and Horace with ease and alacrity and never sound pretentious. He simply made it sound like sense in the context of conversation. I never felt rhetorically outgunned. But of course I was. I miss him. Joe Alioto had class. We need more of it. But then again Michela has it too.
I figured Joe liked the Smothers Brothers because they were troublemakers, and they would be good for San Francisco. If troublemakers – I mean the good sort of trouble – can’t come here to S.F., then where are they going to go? We better keep them here before they get into real trouble. One day I will have to explain what I mean by “good trouble.” Knew I’d regret that.
Back to the brilliant Mason Williams. A sweet fellow, he knows that Christmas comes when you really need it. Not surprisingly he’s got a great band too. Of course he does. I am taking the liberty to deliver Christmas early. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire – to kids from one to ninety-two. And all that sort of thing. Just in case things go screwy, we’ll be like children and hope for the best, knowing the best things are yet to come. There’s no doubt of it. Trust me. There’s got to be something great in this stocking for me. Something from Lucca’s maybe. Happy Christmas. It’s going to turn out all right. After all, we have so many more troublemakers – the ones who make the right kind of trouble. I see them now. They are meandering about this nervous City by the Bay. It’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you. Dammit. And why not? If I had a Christmas stocking, what do you think I’d really find? You got it. Trouble.
Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. Cause trouble by reaching him at email@example.com.
The Final Word