We watched the first episode of ‘Treme’ last night. I’d seen part of it on a plane but not gotten to the segment with Elvis Costello when Steve Zahn is a buzzing gadfly trying to get a few words in while Elvis has come to watch some authentic New Orleans jazz. I’ve been that guy. The first time when I was 18 and doing monitor mix onstage with Sonny Rollins at The Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis where I worked sound crew. I’d been setting up all afternoon and went home to clean up for the show. I decided to put on my white dashiki and as I passed Sonny in the hall he looked at me and said “you changed your shirt.” I knew that he knew that I was trying to stand out while onstage–the opposite of what crew should have been doing. The only other time he spoke to me was when I was moving the faders too much that night (trying to ‘do’ something, since monitor mix usually didn’t ‘do’ very much.) He swatted a big hand in my direction as if to say “leave it the fuck alone.”
A year later I became aware of Laurie Anderson after hearing her 45rpm of “O Superman“. I was struck. I spent the next few years trying to create music like that. I looked her up in the Manhattan phone book and made a package for her. Rang the bell on Canal Street at her loft, she answered, I told her I was a fan in town from Boston and had something for her. She said to leave it there in the vestibule. The next time I saw her she was giving a talk in Boston at the ICA. I got up to ask a question: “some people think that the materialistic worldview of Descartes is giving way and fusing in these times with a kind of spirituality and we are entering an age of “synthesis”, would you agree? She paused a few beats, then said: ” I think you and I need to speak after the show.” I was very flattered, but she was too busy after the show being swamped by other groupies.
The next year I was at a Todd Rundgren concert in Boston. I’d been a fan since I was 13 and had once even shook the big man’s hand on the Asbury Park boardwalk as he bounced down it barefoot holding hands with the stunning Bebe Beuell. This time he had arranged for audience members to come onstage and play percussion during the silly latin number, “When I Pray.” I volunteered and took my place in front of a conga drum and microphone. The song did not start, two fans on stage where asking Todd if they could play his ballad from “Something/Anything” ‘Torch Song’. They wouldn’t take no for an answer and Todd finally agreed. The piano part began and was being played perfectly, the singer of the duo began to croak into the microphone, neither being able to sing nor knowing the correct words. I knew the words, I could sing, I had a mic in front of me. I began to sing. The room hushed, a spotlight went onto me, I sang the entire song. Pause. Standing ovation and cheering from the crowd, Todd saunters over to me and offers his great big hand, ‘nice job man,’ he tells me. An exceptional moment in my young life.
It didn’t end there, I spent a lot of life stalking celebrity and by that I mean celebrities and celebrity. I always wanted to be famous, more than rich. Perhaps it was the idea of being recognized, loved for your self or your art or music, adored, wanted. When The Sippy Cups achieved a certain amount of celebrity, I enjoyed that. I was recognized frequently in the Bay Area by people with kids, most of whom I did not know, but I was even recognized in far-flung places, at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, at a Bruce Springsteen concert, at a wedding by a man who’s kids had found us on iTunes, who quickly called them in Maryland and freaked them out by having me sing “Seven is the New 14” on the phone. I enjoyed all of that.
I also enjoyed getting to meet heroes and rock stars while we were skirting their coattails at rock festivals and clubs. Among that crowd I include (and had my picture taken with): Perry Farrell, Bob Mould, G.Love, Jeff Tweedy, Mark Eitzel, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Tim DeLaughter (Polyphonic Spree), Brett Dennen, Cliff from the Flaming Lips, Joel from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, Ralph Covert, They Might Be Giants, Blonde Redhead, Donovan Frankenreiter, etc., etc. But after a while it was like, ‘who gives a shit?’ I began to feel so much like Steve Zahn in “Treme”, just trying to squeeze into someone else’s limelight, share the glory of their accomplishments, their sacrifice to their art. What did that have to do with me? Was I more famous by meeting famous people? It felt so shallow, embarrassing really.
I’ve just finished Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir “Just Kids” about her early days and her artlife love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe. It is totally inspiring and transporting and is likely my most recommended read to everyone this year. Patti talks about this ‘brushing with celebrity’ a bit, having rubbed torn-shirted elbows however briefly with Jimi, Janis or Dylan, when she was just a sprat. The one remark Jimi made to her on a doorstep, the odd night spent helping Janis back to the Chelsea, etc. There is an honest, heartfelt desire for a young (even 50 year old) artist to touch greatness, or be near to a hero. It is not just the ‘fairy dust effect’ as if being near them will increase your success, but it is to feel the realness of their aura, to share a moment in time and space with a fellow artist, struggling, but making their mark as you hope you will too.
Of course the real moment is to reach them with your art, to be recognized or welcomed into that rosy glow by your efforts, your statement and not by the happenstance of camera/phones and a stolen image, a snatch. Steve Zahn’s character Davis tells Elvis Costello, “yeah, I taught Kermit (Ruffin, the smoking trumpeter onstage) everything he knows” – Elvis stares at Zahn very skeptically, Davis quickly recovers ” … about Keynesian economics,” igniting Elvis’ grin through his sheer wit.