I really wasn’t planning on writing about Jay Leno’s farewell show. Actually, I wasn’t really planning to even watch it. David is in many ways my conduit to pop culture and so he’d PVR’d it (same as TiVo but what we have up here in Canada) and first thing this morning, while sipping steaming, delicious lattes he’d made, we watched it. David had already given me a briefing on this finale; evidently 5 years ago NBC was concerned they’d lose Conan O’Brien and so they pressured Leno into agreeing to retire in 2009 and that Conan would take over from him. So this was a sort of pushed-into-retirement show. First thing that impressed me was that he introduced his wife, Mavis; she was – he said – in the audience for his first tonight show 17 years ago and she was in the audience again that night. He said that with real love in his voice. Hhmm..
Here’s a great musical interlude from that show for you to enjoy; I’ll explain later why it’s here. I’ve put the lyrics right at the end of the posting in case you need them too.
The first segments were as I thought they’d be. Some bitter funny, some sad funny. Whenever he does the Jay Walking bits – where he takes a crew out on the streets and asks people questions like “The Panama Canal is in what country?” or “In what country would you find the Great Wall of China?” and they answer with a variation on “duh?!”; I laugh and then I realize that this level of ignorance rampant in our streets isn’t really that funny at all … it’s a little frightening. Those people, the ones who don’t seem to have a clue … those people vote! Anyhow, I digress.
There were two amazing things on that show, and that’s why I’m writing about it even as I’m still sitting here – 2nd latte in hand – thinking about it and feeling it.
Here’s a man who has reigned as the #1 late-night show guy for many years. He’s leaving; he even talked about packing up his office. He’s going to be back in September on prime time, but that’s still getting out there and saying goodbye to the past and moving on. I guess we call retiring from one job and moving on to another career advancement; in that way, perhaps we should start thinking about retiring from the job-part of life and moving on to another part a “life advancement”. What do you think?
He’d clearly been a part of the planning of this retirement show. He’d invited – and got – James Taylor to come and sing a song that Leno’d listened to as he pulled out of Boston years ago heading to LA. It was the lyrics “10 miles behind me and 10 thousand more to go” that Leno’s kept in his heart all those years. Next thing I knew there was James Taylor singing Sweeet Baby James as a farewell song. And there I was sitting in bed, sipping a latte with my sweetie, and singing – in full voice and with tears in my eyes – along with James Taylor. Brought back a memory from the early 1970s. I’d just given birth to my first son, Joshua, and his Dad (and honestly we were both too young to be having children ourselves) moved out for a while to “find himself”. Remember, this was Southern California in the early 70’s; finding yourself was as legitimate as a religious pilgrimage. I talked with my mother-in-law Edith and told her how scared I was; I didn’t really know many people in California, I had a new baby, I didn’t know how I’d manage this. She gave me words of wisdom: Just hold Josh and love him through whatever you’re feeling. Later that night, when I’d made the drive from the Valley back to Anaheim, I sat in my candle-lit living room, listening to Sweet Baby James, singing along and crying while I held Josh and rocked him in my arms. Then it was the words “waiting for summer, his pastures to change” that triggered the tears. Today it was the notion of “10 years behind me and 10,000 more to go”. I think that one of the things that happens when we retire – and age – is we slip into “10,000 years behind me and 10 years to go” thinking. I’ve let myself go there from time to time. Most of life behind me, just a little left. Bounty in what’s behind me, slim-pickin comin’ up. Mostly, that’s not how I see it at all, but I’ll admit; there are moments. I’d like to go back to the comfort I got listening to that tune. Think I’ll try to figure out how to get this tune onto my iPhone and use it as the ringtone; that way it will remain a positive aspect on living.
If this wasn’t already enough for one hour, there was this final revelation. He’d been asked by NBC what he thought his legacy would be. He’d given that some thought. He then talked about the people who’d worked on the show with him; many (really I think most) of them had been with him for the entiree 17-year run. He showed a photo of the baby girl that had been born to his trombone player (still plays for him) a couple of weeks after the show had started. He then opened the curtain to reveal all of the kids – 68 of them – who’d been born to the Tonight Show family over the 17 years. Now that’s a legacy! When people ask those kids how their parents met, they’d say: “On the set of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno”. He’d had not only made a career but a family. How beautiful is that?
So here I sit. It’s almost 10 a.m. and we have a full day ahead of us. David Edwards, a friend of my David’s who sang the marriage blessings at our wedding, is having his own farewell service at the synagogue he’s been “Cantoring” in part-time for a number of years. He’s off to a full-time Cantor position in Calgary; we wish him Godspeed. Tonight we’re going to go – with my Mother and her friend Eleanor – to a Common Thread Community Chorus concert; that’s the choir I’ve been hoping to get into for nearly 2 years … will find out sometime in June whether or not I’m in for next September. The sun’s shining so I think we’ll drive around town in my car with the top down.
10,000 miles behind me and 10,000 more to go. And then there’s the very mile I’m walking today.
SWEET BABY JAMES: Words and music by James Taylor
There is a young cowboy he lives on the range
His horse and his cattle are his only companions
He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons
Waiting for summer, his pastures to change
And as the moon rises he sits by his fire
Thinking about women and glasses of beer
And closing his eyes as the doggies retire
He sings out a song which is soft but its clear
As if maybe someone could hear
Goodnight you moonlight ladies, rockabye sweet baby James
Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose
Won’t you let me go down in my dreams
And rockabye sweet baby James
Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go
There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway
A song that they sing when they take to the sea
A song that they sing of their home in the sky
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep
But singing works just fine for me
Sweet Baby James
Warner Bros. #CDP 7975772 Released: 1970