Never meet your heroes

10 October 2006
Categories: Music appreciation

My friend (and WXRT morning man) Lin Brehmer put out a terrific/funny/astute “Lin’s Bin” this past week, about how one should never go backstage to meet one’s rock star idols. He’s so right, and not just because it’s apparent from his description of backstage itself (“backstage is a boiler room with bad furniture… backstage is the devil’s rummage sale”) that he’s had plenty of opportunity to visit the basement of the Riviera Theatre.

All too often, the chance to meet your favourite rock star will only end in disappointment. My brief meet-and-greet with the gentlemen of Hot Tuna a few years ago is a good example. I wanted to tell Jorma and Jack how godlike I think they are, how they were the musical core around which was built one of the greatest rock bands ever (the Jefferson Airplane), how their music forms so much of the soundtrack to my life. Awestruck, what I managed to blurt out was, “hi, uh, I’m a big fan.”

That’s just if you’re lucky enough to have them actually listening. Most of the time, they’re in the midst of a long tour, distracted, exhausted, moments after pouring it out on stage, and who’s to blame them if they’re barely listening to yet another fan telling them how awesome they are, how “I have all your albums.” And that’s just the nice ones. Truth be told, many of my musical idols are people I intend never to meet, because no matter how much I like their music, on a personal level I have a sense that they’re assholes.

And yet—that’s not always the case.

A couple of years ago Randy Newman came to the Park West for a solo show. It was an excellent performance, two full sets totalling some 32 songs that ranged over his entire career.

I remember hearing “Short People” on the radio as a kid, and when I was in high school his video for “I Love L.A.” got heavy rotation on MTV—but it wasn’t until college that I really started listening to his music, and found a masterful songwriting ability combined with a scathing satirical wit. By now, yes, I have (almost) all his albums… so when I thought maybe I’d have a chance to get his autograph on one or two of the covers, it took some thought to decide which ones. Ultimately, Sail Away and Little Criminals made the cut.

Anyway, after the show I was hanging around the manager’s office, hoping to hand my CDs off to the production manager, when Randy’s tour manager came in and, after a brief conversation, offered to have me meet the man myself. I was hesitant—knowing how these things can go. Plus, I had led myself to believe that in person he’s something of a curmudgeon.

How wrong I could be.

Randy Newman was friendly, and cheerful, and put me at ease while I tried overly hard to be deferential. As he signed my CDs, we got to talking about music, of course. I think maybe the kicker for him was when he asked if I played any instruments and, after the obligatory and self-deprecating mention of sloppy guitar, I said I’d played mellophone in the Spartan Marching Band. His eyes lit up, and suddenly mellophones and marching bands were the subject of choice.

In fact, in the midst of the discussion a couple of VIPs came in, possibly music industry types or the like, escorted by the tour manager for the standard meet-and-greet. I got up to leave, but Randy waved me back to my seat. After a very short back-and-forth with the VIPs, lasting no more than a minute or two, Randy turned back to me and picked up our conversation right where we’d left off.

In all, I was there for around ten minutes—but it’s a memory I’ll keep forever.

Funny thing is, a friend of mine also met Randy that night. This friend is highly intelligent, has the gift of gab, and probably has ten years head start on me in terms of being a fan of Randy Newman. Yet their conversation was brief, perfunctory, and unmemorable. I suppose the fact that my friend could be considered a “music industry type” might have had something to do with it.

Or, perhaps, it’s because he never played the mellophone.

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