I just re-watched one of my favorite movies this past weekend, Almost Famous. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s directed by Cameron Crowe and it’s the semi-autobiographical tale of William, a high school senior who skips out on school to write an article for Rolling Stone. His assignment is to go on tour with Stillwater, an up-and-coming (fictional) band headlining their first tour. At the end of the tour, he must produce an article that gives the world the “real” picture of Stillwater. While William struggles to make sense of what is real and what is false, he encounters and becomes fond of many memorable people such as groupie Penny Lane and lead guitarist and total heartthrob Russell Hammond. When it comes time for William to write the article, a band member pleads with him to “just make us look cool.” I won’t spoil the ending, but the article William writes delves much deeper than the disillusionment of a young fan getting to know the “real” side of his favorite new band. Rent it.
I feel a sort of kinship with William. My time at WXPN has not brought upon me even slight disillusionment about the music industry; what I’ve encountered I have not been overly surprised by. I’m a fan, yes, but more so, I love interesting people. And musicians and groupies and managers are really just as fun as one would think (and, honestly, just as crazy). But I already knew all of that, and so did William. Although I’m not getting to know these bands on highly personal levels or writing articles for Rolling Stone, I am getting exposed to the “real” side of a touring band, behind the performances and meet-and-greets. I feel as though I have been catapulted into a world full of adults behaving badly, but I’m enjoying it immensely.
“So there I am, topless. I hopped the fence to the V.I.P. camping section and I stumbled upon MGMT. But I didn’t know it was them. It was just when they were getting big, and there were like a million people around them. And then I sat down and talked to them, I don’t really remember it well, but the editor of Rolling Stone was there. And they were like, ‘That’s the editor of Rolling Stone! You’re topless in front of the editor of Rolling Stone!’ And then I was like, ‘Can I have an internship?’ As you can probably guess, I did not get an internship. Yeah, I used to be pretty crazy,” said my 23-year-old co-worker (let’s call her Bonnie). She was reminiscing about her “groupie” stage (her words, not mine) and I was all ears. Bobby Long, a British folksinger who was playing a Free at Noon concert, is one of Bonnie’s favorite musicians. We both jumped at the chance to set up for the concert. As we were making coffee for Bobby and his band she was telling me about all the other bands she’s had encounters with (the list is really quite long: Of Montreal, Raphael Saadiq, ?uestlove, etc.).
When Bobby finally came in, we were both struck by how pale and sick he looked. He went straight to the Green Room as his band mates set up their instruments. He eventually emerged onto the stage and ordered a Bloody Mary from the bar.
“Man, it’s so early in the morning. We just came back from New York and we were out pretty late. So I’m tired and really hung over,” he said to Bonnie and me, trying to explain why he was drinking at 10:30 am. The repetitive and irritating noise of the sound check seemed to be worsening whatever he was feeling. “Are you girls tired?”
“Yes,” I said, right as Bonnie answered “no”. We looked at each other and exchanged a smile.
“New York is wild,” he said wistfully, in his Liverpudlian accent. We left, giggling to each other. We continued to set up for the show until 11:30, when the concertgoers started piling in. The show began promptly at noon with the host Helen introducing Bobby and his band. The Free at Noons get broadcast live on the radio, and the whole thing takes about 40 minutes. Bonnie and I had grabbed the camera from our bosses’ desk and snapped some shots of him playing.
“I just threw up in the bathroom a couple minutes ago,” he admitted to the audience, live on air. There was general discomfort in the crowd as no one laughed at his quasi-jokes. Most of the concert-goers were affluent, middle-aged WXPN members, not bar-going college kids. The uneasiness lasted the entire set, but I still enjoyed the brooding, alt-country folk and the audience eventually let go and started swaying along.
It’s funny to see what goes into a live act. It’s easy to assume the musician is thrilled to be doing what they love and playing live music, but it’s so much more. Bobby was griping onstage about the lack of freedom afforded to him by his record label, but after the set he went into the Green Room and strummed his guitar a bit, singing to himself in a trance. It’s clear he loves music, but it’s also clear that he’s tired of being forced to perform at certain times, in certain places. He wants to be cool and relevant, and the older crowd at the concert was not impressive to him. They didn’t matter because they weren’t laughing at his jokes.
He’s in that awkward stage of almost fame; he’s not famous or important enough to have artistic freedom and visionary direction, but he’s starting to outgrow his small fan base and support system. The frustration is what’s captured in Almost Famous; it’s the frustration of dealing with one’s self-imposed limitations.
Bonnie and I went backstage after the show to escort Bobby to his meet-and-greet. We were instructed to cut it off after 10 minutes. Some middle-aged women and the occasional teen girl came to get the set-list or a CD signed, and everyone eventually wandered out. Bobby and his band went back to the Green Room to pass time before that night’s show. I could see the stress of this lifestyle in his eyes, and I almost felt a little sorry for him. He probably won’t ever hit it big. He’ll gain some more fans and release a second album, but he’s not that innovative or imaginative. He is cool, but coolness doesn’t last forever. Eventually it will taper off. Whatever buzz he has surrounding him can only last so long, until he actually has to make something of himself. Which, I hate to say, probably won’t happen – it rarely does. So I smiled at him as he drank his Bloody Mary, watching him fill the time until he has to grow up.