I hadn’t planned to write about Jay Leno’s final Tonight Show. I hadn’t even planned to watch it actually. But David, wise man that he is, had PVRd it the night before (that’s TiVo for us) and so as we woke up this morning he asked if I’d like to watch it. By that time he’d already briefed me; I knew that 5 years ago NBC had been nervous it was going to lose Conan O’Brien so they’d made a deal with him that Leno would retire in 2009 and Conan would get the Tonight Show. This was part of that deal. So Leno wasn’t leaving because he’d decided it was time; he was sort of moved out to make way for someone else. Sure, he’s going to be back in the fall with a prime time hour show; but at the time he was told he’d be retired in 2009 he didn’t know what lay ahead. Until the show’s on the air he won’t really know how this is going to turn out; another hit or a miss? Interested in how he’d handle his last Tonight Show I said that I’d be glad to watch a few minutes of it at least, and so did. The first thing that really caught my attention was that he introduced his wife, Mavis; she’d been sitting in the audience the night of his first Tonight Show and he was so happy that she was still sitting there. Nice. Thought I’d watch some more.
Here’s a very beautiful musical interlude for you before you read on. For now, just enjoy it. Later I’ll explain why it’s here. I’ve put the lyrics at the end of this post; hope they’re helpful to you as they’ve been to me. You might want to click <Read More> and then scroll down and use the lyrics to follow along as you listen. Or not.
The first segments of the show brought me laughter and bemusement. He did a Jaywalking segment in which he goes out on the streets of Los Angeles with a microphone and asks passersby questions. Questions like: “The Panama Canal is in what country?” or “What country would you have to go to if you wanted to see the Great Wall of China?” or “What does the D.C. in Washington, D.C .stand for?” Questions that these “regular folk” answered with something that sounded very much like a “duh” with things crashing in the background. A smiling face responded to the D.C. question this way, while flipping her long, straight hair out of her blue eyes: “Da Capital?”. Funny? Oh, yes. Scary? Ya betcha! After all, those people … those folks who don’t seem quite on top of things … those people vote! Some of them run for Vice President!
Okay – back to the show.
Seems that many years ago, early in his career, when Jay (notice how friendly I’m getting) was driving out of Boston heading for his big break in LA he heard James Taylor singing on the radio; the lyrics: “10 miles behind me and 10,000 more to go” had stuck in his mind all those years and somehow he’d gotten James Taylor himself to come onto this final Tonight Show and sing Sweet Baby James. Okay – so now you’re gathering there is a way the video fits into my story right? Seems that Leno had that “10 behind, 10,000 more to go” feeling when he started as Tonight Show host and that he still has it; he definitely talked with some enthusiasm – and a sprinkling of anxiety – when he told us about his new prime-time show. “Retiring” from one part of his life and moving on to another; isn’t that just what I’ve been doing? We call moving from one part of a career to the next a “career advancement”. Think I’ll start thinking of what I’m experiencing these days as a “life advancement”. Sound good?
So .. back to Sweet Baby James. When I hear that song it brings back floods of memories. Let me take you back about 36 years. I was living in Anaheim, California with a newborn son whose father had decided that he needed to move out for a while to “find himself”. In the early 70’s California was filled with people who were there to “find themselves”. It was a highly regarded thing to do somehow, seen as the equivalent of a religious pilgrimage. Anyhow, I remember talking with my then mother-in-law Edith and telling her how scared I was about being on my own with a brand new baby … after all, what did I know about taking care of babies? My mother would be coming to stay with me for a while, but not arriving for a couple of weeks (and I didn’t want her to know what was happening anyhow; it would just worry her and maybe it would be resolved before she arrived) and so I packed up my son and drove home. When I got home I lit a fire, sat down in a rocking chair with Josh in my arms, turned on James Taylor and sat rocking and listening with tears rolling down my cheeks.
The words that resonated in my soul then were: “waiting for summer, his pastures to change”; I knew that I just had to have faith that things would turn out. Hearing that song again now the words that rivet me have changed; what I keep repeating to myself is Leno’s line “10 miles behind me and 10,000 more to go.” I think that when we’re young we see life from that perspective, but as we get older – and reach retirement – I wonder if we don’t start to rewrite the words to “10,000 miles behind me and 10 more to go”? I know that I’ve done it myself from time to time; let myself slip into thinking the best had passed, my achievement chart had pinnacled and it was downhill from here, rich experience to remember and restricted experience ahead. Only from time to time. I think I need to find a way to download this tune as a ringtone on my iPhone so that all through the day I can be reminded of my dreams.
But wait, I’m not done yet. What came towards the end of the show was truly moving. Leno said that he’d been talking, a little while ago, to an NBC exec who’d asked him what his legacy would be. That question had stumped him. He left it at that. Then he started thanking the folks that worked for him, noting over and over that this person or that person had been with him for most of the past 17 years. In the first weeks of the show’s run his trombone player – still plays in his band – had a baby girl. Leno brought Hannah – now a lovely 17 year old young woman – onstage. He then talked about how many of the people who’d worked on the show had ended up married to each other. And then … and then … up went the curtain to the most amazing site. There they were; 68 kids who were all born to parents who worked with Leno on the Tonight Show. That’s his legacy. When anyone asks any of these kids where their parents met they’ll say: “Oh, they met on the set of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” How cool is that?
What Leno’s done is build a family. That’s an amazing thing. All these people who’ve been working together every day for so long; most of them are going with him to his new show too. They seem to know each other, care about each other. Hannah bakes him cookies every year; has since she was 4 he said when she handed him this year’s batch. They’re a family; a community of care.
Well, this has all given me a lot to think about. As I near the end of this post I’m still listening to James Taylor but I’m thinking that I’m going to sing the words this way: “10,000 miles behind me and 10,000 more to go”. I see so many wonderful things ahead. How blessed I am to be making this part of the journey with so many people in my heart-family; David, our children and our grandchildren, my Mother, my sisters, my friends (by birth, from birth, old and new, in the flesh and virtual); well, how could this be anything but sweet pastures?
We’re taking my mother and her friend Eleanor to a concert of the Common Thread Chorus tonight. I’ll tell you more about that another time. There are chores to be done. The sun is shining. Think we’ll head out for the day with the top of my car down.
10,000 miles behind and 10,000 more to go.
Goodbye, for now, Jay Leno. Thanks.
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