Thursday, September 9, 2010

Celebrity Encounters

  I've got fourteen minutes of fame left. I used up my first minute in Brooklyn at the Dark Circus Party this past July. I don't know if Vagabond Opera was genuinely famous that night, but I got a sense of what fame feels like.
   Bloody awful.
   New York, Saturday night, we were the last to go on (our start time was 4 AM). We had just come from Kingsborough Community College where we played an outdoor show to what seemed to be the entire Jewish septuagenarian (and up) population of Brooklyn. I think they liked what they heard (although one woman complained to us that Marlene Dietrich was a collaborator--I've heard that before and I've heard the opposite too. For now, the Marlene song stays).
   We got in our van, went back to the hotel and changed (you can't wear the same outfit twice in one night, can you?), and 'round Midnight pulled up in some alley near some club where we were playing the Dark Circus Party (the details elude one after being on tour with its vicissitudes of diet and sleep habits).

With friends after the Dark Circus show.

   I am very thankful that I make my living as a performing artist and always try to remember that I have no right to bitch when there are guys standing outside of open-mic night with their guitar, hoping to play one song.
   And there are other people digging ditches.
   But I do have the right to sleep, don't I? That's all I wanted to do--sleep back stage, maybe from midnight until 2 AM, and it looked like it could happen. There was a little futon, a little fan blowing air on the futon. Picture me, mustache curled, wide-striped pants, suspenders off my undershirt, bottle in my hand as I lay face-up, in deep slumber.
   You don't have to picture me! After about twenty minutes some little twerp from Time Out New York (the little twerp's name is Sean Ellingson and you can find him at thought he'd loom his camera near my face and snap the flash. I sat bolt upright and began to reel off a combination of the Black mass and every choice word in a sailor's lexicon. He ran off quick but his words trailed behind him: “But it was such a great shot.” Damn him, the artist in me was vaguely OK with that answer, and now I was fully awake. 

   So that's what it feels like? We were the hot item for one Brooklyn minute and I can't even complain about it without coming off like a privileged wanker. Sounds like a working definition of celebrity to me.


  And then there's Celebrity. Consider this encounter:  My father-in-law, Neal,  was in Portland and wanted to buy a basic guitar book for his grand-daughter. I took him to Artichoke music; it's where all the pickers and old-timey musicians go, and Neal is the real deal having grown up on a rural Tennessee farm. I knew he'd appreciate the store.
  It was a weekday afternoon and the place was dead. I sat on a chair while Neal browsed. Out of nowhere one of the workers handed me a banjo. "Here. Try it!"
  At first, I protested; I had never played one in my life, but since there was no one there I decided to give it a whirl. I got a decent sound out if it and pretty soon I was smugly telling myself, "This isn't that hard. It's not like the accordion."

   A couple came into the shop. They were in a hurry and soon the clerk began to help the man. The woman came toward me. Pity the poor insecure musician! It was all too much. A beautiful stranger, an instrument I didn't know how to play,  an audience of four people. 
  Don't I tell my students that wherever you are on the instrument is a fine place to be? Don't I tell them not to be embarrassed, that just picking up your axe is an affirmation?
  She asked me about that banjo, the make or something, I don't know. I quickly asserted that I knew nothing about it, and furthermore that I was an accordion player. Somehow I would have loved to have added that I sang, led a six-piece ensemble and had composed an opera. You can't rush these things when you want to impress someone though; you have to let them casually slip out.
  Wow. Denying that instead of playing the banjo you play the accordion. Rock star move.
   Now don't get me wrong--I have a beautiful wife who I love with a passion hotter than a thousand flaming suns, but when there's a stunningly gorgeous woman in front of you the primal urge to let loose your yawp kicks in, and here I was without my yawp machine. She was very giving and told me a little about playing banjo, explained claw-hammer style and sat with me and tried to teach me.
  I came to my senses; there would clearly be no time (or purpose) to advertise myself, so why not learn something? I tried the claw-hammer thing. It was fun.
  But I still had to say something asinine as she left, loud enough for her and her friend to hear.
  "Well it still seems kind of a limited instrument."
  Now I know that's not true. I grew up listening to all kinds of folk and bluegrass music. What on earth  prompted me to say that? After all these years of being a successful musician what the hell did I need to prove to anyone? You'd think it would be OK to come off as a beginner; to have someone be unaware that you're a minor Portland celebrity. 
  "Do you know who that was?" The clerk was star-struck.
   The woman's name was Abigail Washburn.
  She's well-known in the folk and bluegrass world. But it wasn't her photo I was searching for online later that night to confirm the clerk's assertion. Because he wasn't talking about her.
  I found a photo. Yup. That was the man who was with Abigail all right.
  For a moment the worst banjo player in the world and the best one were together in one room.
  Sorry that I was such an ass, Bela Fleck

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic mess! As a musician, I'm sure I'm not the only one who can relate. Perhaps, next time, a little more observation on your part is all that is needed. :-)