I like Steve Martin a lot better now than when I first started to hear about him in the late 1970s. I loathed “I’m a wild and crazy guy,” “King Tut,” “EXCUUUUSE ME!!!” and other well-known lines. I know that Gern Blanston was a character he made up, but I have no visuals to go along with the name. I still can’t stand SNL. And I remember being really annoyed with a guy named Steve in seventh grade who could imitate Steve Martin to a T. I just wanted him to shut up.
Reading Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life for one of my book groups was a joy and an education for me about what it is like to be a comic and develop an act, to perform, and to do a lot of creative things in one’s career. I feel as though I understand Steve Martin better after reading it. It’s an excellent memoir (written in 2007), and he’s an amazing writer.
This book led me to his films L.A. Story and Three Amigos! I was intrigued by the former because he said he was inspired by the Bothy Band’s “Maid of Coolmore” as he wrote it. His roadie would often play “sad Irish songs for the sad, lonely road.” I love Celtic music. Not all of it is sad or plum-pitiful, but there are times when you should just avoid it. Trust me.
Now that I’ve seen L.A. Story (very worth seeing again) and know the lyrics of the song, the connection is clear. Enjoy!
From sweet Londonderry to the fair London Town
There is no other like her anywhere to be found
Where the children are smiling and playing around the shore
And the joybells are ringing for the maid of Coolmore
The first time that I met her she passed me by
The next time that I met her she bade me goodbye
But the last time that I met her she grieved my heart so
For she sailed down off Ireland away from Coolmore
If I had the power or the strength to arise
I would blow the wind back here for to turn the blue skies
I would blow the wind back here to make the salt sea to rise
On the day that my love sailed away from Coolmore
I also grew to understand the method behind Steve Martin’s comedy madness. In college, he was enamored with the poetry of E.E. Cummings. A line from one of his lectures stayed with Martin because of the reference to comedy. When asked why he became a poet, Cummings replied, “Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.” It took him ten years to work out, but I now understand some of his routines, including the impromptu ribbing (Mr. CLEANPANTS!!) he gave his friend Larry the doorman as he led his audience out into the lobby. Martin has great respect for Johnny Carson–as a person and a professional comic.
My interest in art grew by a few more artists and photographers while reading this book, but I do not share most of his favorites. Steve Martin is a serious art collector. Here’s a related article about the Diane Arbus Disneyland castle photo. Martin worked there as a young boy and as a teenager, and owns a copy of the photo. He also likes Winslow Homer, and I learned who Ed Kienholz is and John Everett Millais.
I enjoyed the understated humor in his writing, and some of the photos made me howl with laughter. I had always been curious about how and why he learned to play the banjo. (His recording, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, is excellent. In the play he wrote with Edie Brickell, Bright Star, he has at least a couple of opportunities to showcase his skills.)
To learn to play, he would slow down bluegrass records until he learned the notes. One of the recordings he listened to is below, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” It’s a wonder he didn’t drive himself insane in the process. In order to not agonize everyone else in the house, he would practice in his car. Fortunately, a good friend, an accomplished player, helped him out as well.
But what I loved most about the memoir were the parts about his family. His growing-up years were not all that happy at times, but he still has some fond memories. But as he grew up, he distanced himself from them. But through it all, his mother and sister kept tabs on his career, collecting articles and clippings and cheering him on from a distance. His sister came to see his act. One of my favorite lines in the book is a phone call his sister, Melinda, made. “I want to get to know my brother,” she told him. Their connection has continued. Martin was also able to reconcile with his father before his father passed away. Some things you only understand more fully with the passage of time.
To me, Steve Martin is a true Renaissance man. It will be interesting to explore his other work.