Monday, 19 November 2007

I Reject You First: Fame, Fame, Fame...

Who's the most famous person you've ever met? I was having this conversation the other day with some of the other Reuters Fellows. It quickly became apparent--as they reeled off the names of movie stars, professional athletes and respected statesmen they had dined and vacationed with--that I don't get out enough.

Of course, it doesn't help that I live in Washington. "Hollywood for ugly people" is only one of the nicer epithets attached to the U.S. capital. Seeing Newt Gingrich at a Redskins game or watching Robert Reich cross the street just isn't the same as snorting cocaine off the back of a dolphin with Bono and the Dalai Lama at an Oscars after-party.

But who cares about famous people, besides, I mean, everybody? I'm more interested in people before they become famous. You know, stories that go: "And that ugly girl with braces who helped light my Bunsen burner in 10th grade chemistry? That's right, she became Scarlett Johansson."

Sadly, I don't have any of those stories, either. But I do have a story about how I know the editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, who, I guess, passes for famous in the world of geek-publishing.

When I was in college my room mate, Pat, and I wanted to form a new wave band. He played guitar; I played the drums. All that was standing between us and musical world domination was the lack of a bass player. Anyone who's ever been in a rock band knows how hard it is to find a bass player. No one in his right mind starts out wanting to play bass and thus they are as rare as jockstraps at a nudist colony. We tried all the usual methods: ads in the paper, flyers up in music stores, word of mouth. Nothing seemed to work. (I remember carrying all my drums up to a loft in some group house to audition a midget hippie bass player. Seriously, he was like a perfectly-scaled down human, all beard and bellbottoms and flannel shirt. Needless to say, it didn't work out. [That man? That's right, he became Scarlett Johansson.])

Our leads exhausted, Pat and I thought it might be easier to grow a grow a bass player ourselves in a hydroponic garden. Then, a lead: Pat and I had started going to a new nightclub downtown, an atmospheric dump on F Street NW called the 930 club. We'd primp in front of the mirror in our Langley Park apartment, making sure our skinny ties were on right, our Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello buttons arranged just so on our lapels. We'd drive downtown in his Plymouth Duster or my Mercury Comet, then smoke Camels, drink beer or gin ad tonics, and dance, occasionally with girls.

One night Pat went by himself and when he returned early in the morning he announced that he'd found a bass player. It was like hearing Arthur describe how he'd pulled Excalibur from out of a rock. There'd been a skinny guy leaning against one of the pillars at the 930 club. For some reason, he caught Pat's eye. He had the right look. Pat struck up a conversation, eventually asking if he'd like to play bass in a new wave band called the Item. Yes, he said. He didn't actually play the bass, but he had one and sort of wanted to learn. He even had a place to practice. He lived at home in Glen Echo, a funky but affluent Maryland suburb of Washington, and he was sure his parents wouldn't mind us playing there. His name was Greg Anderson. (Why does the world know him as "Chris"? I'll get to that.)

The Beatles created the rock and roll band myth and they also destroyed it. Every band wants their life to be "A Hard Day's Night" and it is impossible to achieve. There's a sadness when you realize that. Still, we persevered, after a fashion, carting our instruments to Greg's living room. Greg wasn't what you'd call a natural musician but Pat taught him where to put his fingers to pluck out what was needed for our somewhat uncomplicated songs. We'd go see bands together. Greg spent a night on the floor of our apartment.

We played a ramshackle gig in the basement of a dorm at the University of Maryland (where an attractive, if shrill, co-ed complained that we were too loud [that woman? That's right; she became My Lovely Wife {really!}]). Our proper debut was in December 1980, at a tiny downtown club called d.c. space. It was part of something called the Unheard Music Festival.

One of the great rock divides separates bands into those who like to wear matching outfits and those who don't. Pat and I were in the former (see "Hard Day's Night, above). I'm not saying Greg was adamantly on the other side of the schism, but I think he grumbled a bit when we asked if he would wear a striped shirt. None of us had the exact same striped shirt--Pat's was orange and white and collared; mine was an old soccer shirt, green and white; Greg's was blue and white and striped horizontally--but we were going for a look and I think that smacked of artifice, offending Greg's sensibilities.

You see, the outfit thing is just an indicator of where you fall on the pop-punk continuum. I like the Clash. I like the Sex Pistols. But I make no apologies for wanting to be the Beatles or, in a pinch, the Partridge Family. Greg showed up at the gig with his hair newly-bleached and spiked and an "X" emblazoned across the front of his Rickenbacker 4003 bass in white athletic tape. Greg didn't want to be in the Beatles.

There exists a black and white videotape of the Item's performance at the Unheard Music Festival. I have a copy back home, in Washington. We aren't bad, actually. We were certainly the only mildly poppy band on the bill, one of only a few not to do a 1-minute, 15-second version of the Monkees' "Stepping Stone." (One of the bands that did, a little combo called Minor Threat, wouldn't be unheard for much longer.)

But the night belonged to punk. Greg broke a string on the last song (a bass string; that doesn't happen often). A few days later he told us he didn't think he was a good fit for the Item.

Bands are funny things, roiling balls of ego and creativity, madness and humor. Good ones are more than just units that can play notes or keep beats. They're organisms that open up to one another and live and breathe as one. When one person wants to leave, it hurts. Because music is so elemental, rejecting it is like saying you don't like someone's soul. That's why band splits are so fractious, like the bitterest divorce. Civilians might be amazed by the rancor and vitriol that attends something like the Eddie Van Halen/David Lee Roth battles. Anyone who's spent any time in a band just gives a sad and knowing nod.

Pat and I cursed Greg to each other, but he'd been right. We weren't a good fit. Greg want on to join a band called Egoslavia that was kind of Talking Heads lite. They released an album locally and even opened for the Psychedelic Furs at the University of Maryland's student union. There must not have been any hard feelings, since Greg put Pat and me on the guest list. Or, rather, Chris did. He'd had to change his name because the leader of Egoslavia was named Greg.

The Item found a replacement bass player, a 15-year-old wunderkind named Eric who was sensational, much better than we deserved. Then we played a lot of Thursday-night gigs not opening for the Psychedelic Furs.

I touched base with Chris Anderson when he was working for the Economist and was back in town to visit his family. Next I heard he'd become editor of Wired (a magazine so cool that in its early days it had a design that rendered it practically unreadable, as if to actually read the articles would in some way sully them).

Not that Item veterans are slackers. Eric had to leave the band when he graduated from high school. He want on to earn his PhD from MIT in the history of science and works in academia in Cambridge, Mass. His replacement, Tim, teaches economics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Pat does something I don't quite understand for Freddie Mac, the home loan outfit. After 10 years he picked up his guitar again and now plays all around Washington with an acclaimed rockabilly band he put together called Western Bop. I'm a journalist, though not as famous a one as Chris Anderson. And I still play the drums.

If you poke around online you will find Chris Anderson talking about his musical experience. He focuses on the art-punk of Egoslavia, not the power pop of the Item. But trust me: I once made him wear a matching outfit.


Mrs. Smith said...

You're doing better than I am. I'm afraid I depend on the "Six Degrees of Separation" theory to reach fame. I am one away from a few good ones though. My son once spent and hour or two with Julius Erving and my nephew attended a party at Danny Efman's house (think Oingo Boingo). That's it for me. It's sad really.

suburbancorrespondent said...

I'll play. My neighbors' son-in-law was Bruce Springsteen's drummer on his last tour. This same guy put together my kids' Little Tykes wagon on Christmas Eve several years ago so that we could surprise them on Christmas morning, because my husband was working 12-hour shifts both days. (That's an exemplary display of Christmas spirit, especially when you consider that he - the drummer - is Jewish.) So now I tell everyone that the kids' wagon was put together by Bruce Springsteen's drummer. And they don't believe me.

JP McD said...

It's all true. I do believe the Unheard Music Festival that launched Ian MacKaye on an unsuspecting world was January 1981, but could be wrong. Also, we were lucky to get Thursday night gigs. I remember mostly Wednesdays. The pay was $35 and we'd give $15 to Jimmy the Sound Guy. I recently learned that he was actually paid by the bar, and just ripped the bands off because he could.

I never knew the reason for the "Chris-to-Greg" change. If I did, I'd forgotten it.

As for brushes with fame, my best was yelling "You f***king idiot!" at Ted Koppel for crossing against the light at DeSales St, NW while I was trying to deliver a package back in my courier days. It was only after I'd yelled at him did I realize that no one other than Ted Koppel could have hair that bad and be walking into the ABC News bureau.

My current bass player Louie Newmyer did a European tour with his childhood pal Nils Lofgren (Bethesda had much better kids down the block than Rockville did). They were joined onstage by Ringo Starr on drums for a few numbers, and he hung out backstage with them for a while.

Have you read the Bob Spitz Beatles bio? I'm about 300 pages in, and it's great so far.

mark from alexandria said...

This first one will demonstrate that I am "older than dirt," but, through a friend of a friend (while at American U), I was at one of Jimmy Carter's inaugural parties(he didn't call them balls) and shook his and Roselyn's hands. The nicest politician I've ever met is current Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.

cktirumalai said...

Once someone becomes famous all sorts of people claim to have known him and go on to invent stories of his childhood and youth. Biographers are well aware of this phenomenon.
In 1973 or so I got on an elevator in a Manhattan hotel, then the venue of a conference for college teachers, and suddenly found myself with Mohammed Ali, his wife, and bodyguard. As soon as the celebrated boxer got off the elevator, he was besieged by small boys with their autograph books.

PAB said...

The Item deserved better than their Thursday (or was it Wednesday?) night gigs. I know, because I was there for more than a few of them.

My brush with fame? Bill Wyman once shook my hand during a Rolling Stones show when I was lucky enough to score front row seats.

I read the Spitz bio of the Beatles, and it is great. If you're like me, however, you'll be begging for the book to finish and the band to break up at the end because of all the rancor and pettiness.

Chris Anderson said...

Greg/Chris here....

All true, especially the lack of musical talent.

The really tragic part is that my parents were actually delighted that their son was practicing with his band in the dining room, and they kept sneaking down to film it with their super-8 movie camera. These films still exist, to my eternal shame. And my mom is still in contact with John, still slightly sorry that I hadn't pursued a musical career with that nice young man.

mark from alexandria said...

This is really depressing after reading the other comments, I realize that I have met alot of politicians, but the closest I've come to musical royalty was having Diana Ross come into the audience and sit down next to my aisle seat and meeting Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme at a theme park when I was a little kid.

Anonymous said...

I knew RuPaul before he was a woman. Or something like that.

Henry said...

The difference between the British and American versions of this game is that in the US, the winner is the person who knows the most famous person, whereas the Brits score points by having the most tenuous-but-still-plausible connection to the least-famous-but-still-heard-of celeb. Under the latter rules, I beat everyone easily: I was once asked for a light by Eddie Tudorpole, of Tenpole Tudor and one-time substitute lead singer for the Sex Pistols. It took place in the Miller of Mansfield pub, Oxfordshire, and the conversation went like this:
Eddie Tudorpole: "Got a light, mate?"
HL: No, sorry.
ET: Oh well.
Could there be a more pathetic brush with fame?

Anonymous said...

Let's see...I used to babysit Dermot Mulroney (and his brother Kieran, also in the acting biz).

towwas said...

I've interviewed Joshua Bell and Calvin Trillin. Not very impressed, are you? Once I e-mailed U2's publicist. She never wrote me back. I guess the band was not interested in talking to me. (Sigh.)

John Kelly said...

Ted Koppel! Dermot Mulroney! Calvin Trillin! Eydie Gorme! Tenpole Tudor! Max Weinberg! (The Boss's drummer.) What a varied crowd. Wouldn't it be fun to have a dinner party with all of them. "Tudor, meet Trillin."

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