Revisiting Almost Famous


ImageLast weekend I went down to Santa Cruz and did an interview with Marcel of Marcel’s Music Journal. Marcel is thirteen years old and already kickin’ ass and takin’ names in the local music blogging world. Seriously: Musicians are taking notice; trusting him with coverage on them. Writers and editors are following him in droves on social media. It’s a somewhat strange tale, and I knew I had to be there before this kid broke big (as big as one can with a blog, anyway).

When considering Marcel’s and MMJ’s trajectory, it’s pretty hard not to be reminded of Almost Famous (I was actually successful at keeping any mention of it out of the final draft; go me). Almost Famous, the story of 15-year-old William Miller, a fledgling freelancer who gets thrown into a plum assignment for Rolling Stone at the headiest peak of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll, was the coming-of-age movie for every kid who grew up with cool parents. For me, it got the gears turning about pursuing a career, or hell, even just a hobby, in rock writing (I always hesitate to call it ‘journalism’). Even though it was not a practical career goal in 2000, and wasn’t even a practical career goal in 1973, and even though the entire film revolves around just how unglamorous and stressful and deflating and wholly uncool being a rock writer is, it just reinforced the idea that it was even possible.

I was 14 in 2000. I discovered rock ‘n’ roll around age ten, when my dad, capitalizing on my childhood love of Broadway and musicals, took me to see a youth theater production of The Who’s Tommy. Thus began a tireless obsession with all things 1960s, which of course included the music of the era. Over time, the lava lamps, the tie-dye, the vintage shirts stolen from my mother’s closet faded from my bedroom, but the music stayed.

Almost_Famous_tommyAnyway, since meeting with Marcel last week and being treated to a tour of his vinyl collection, I’ve been revisiting some of my earliest rock ‘n’ roll memories. I’m a constant, voracious nostalgic, so it’s not terribly uncommon for me to dip into albums that I loved in years past, but rarely do I delve deeper than high school in my own musical history. Talking with Marcel about his musical upbringing, which closely mirrored my own, got me thinking about how this foolish pursuit of mine got started in the first place. I listed to Tommy in the car on the ride to work almost every day this week, and I’ve been (metaphorically) spinning Wheels of Fire and Disraeli Gears at my desk, front to back to front again. Today, when I came home from work, I popped in Almost Famous.

almost-famous-title-screenshotI saw Almost Famous in the theater when I was 14, with my cousin Megan and her friend Alex. (We went to the Winchester Mystery House afterward. My mom ended up buying the $30-a-head tickets. She was really not happy about that.) I don’t remember loving the movie all that passionately, but I do remember being sort of…fascinated with it. Even though it took place in the past and I didn’t know how well the story could apply to the 2000s, I became curious if, when I grew up just a few short years from then, I could actually pull something like that off. If I could become a professional music writer; spend a month or two on a bus with a band bouncing from town to town, then writing a fabulous story about it. I liked music, like really liked music, and I was a good writer, so it seemed as though the decision had been made for me. Like the idea had found me, almost, and there it was revealing itself to me.

I bought it on VHS after it came out, and I watched it at home, over and over and over. And soon enough, it became my favorite movie. Again, not necessarily because I loved it, but because I wanted so bad for it to be true. For me. I wanted to throw myself with reckless abandon into rock ‘n’ roll, but do it under the guise of responsibility. I wanted to have a confused, loose romance on the road with a near-stranger. I wanted to show the kids at my school whom I felt personally wronged by that they had no idea who they were messing with. That they could make fun of me all they wanted to, but they’d soon come to know that there was another universe out there, one in which I was cool.

one day you'll be coolWatching Almost Famous as an adult is, for lack of a better word, a trippy experience. For a lot of reasons. There are still so many little beautiful moments — Kate Hudson whirling around in the trash of an empty arena, the dusky sun behind the van on a long bus trip to another city, that running-after-the-airplane scene that never won’t give me a knot in my stomach, no matter how impervious to schmaltz I like to think I am — and the whole thing just shimmers with some of the greatest music ever made. But now, now that I’m on the other side of things, it’s strange coming back to it. It’s almost hard to watch.

A lot has changed since 1973, first of all. The most obvious difference being that people just do not pay for anything anymore. I let out a strangled noise of surprise when I heard Lester Bangs offer $35 for William’s first assignment. What, no unpaid internship first? When you plug $35 into an inflation calculator, it comes out to about $185. Which is actually a decent price, but, in my experience, gigs — first gigs, especially — that pay even decently are few and far between. Then Rolling Stone offers him a grand. A grand! I would shit myself if someone offered me $1,000 for a piece, of any length, in 2013 money.

(Also, he gets to turn in an expense report, and his story goes through a thorough fact-check! By a designated fact-checker! That’s hilarious.)

Almost_Famous_555And then there’s the band and their whole crew. On multiple occasions, they can be heard clearly telling William what’s off-record. In my own experience, most aren’t even aware of how the off-record option works. No one has ever invoked it with me, but some have gone so far as to contact me after a piece is published asking me to change the story or take out quotes that they “don’t like.” Sorry, but if you say it and you don’t tell me not to use it, it’s fair game. That’s about as honest and unmerciful as I get.

On the other hand, if Almost Famous is representing rock bands of the era truthfully, it’s comforting to realize how much less BS there is in rock ‘n’ roll these days…sort of. Since “rock god” isn’t really a viable career option for anyone anymore, most bands I talk to have to slog through day jobs, which results in a whole lot more humility. More humility, but less interesting stories. A story like William’s would just not be possible in 2013. Rock ‘n’ roll’s been around for over 50 years, so the pros have plenty of examples of what not to do by now. All the indies just do it to blow off steam after class or work, and all the big guys have a network of managers and publicists that have expertly trained them on how to talk to press. Minus a few refreshing exceptions, it’s no fun writing — or reading — profiles on bands that pretty much all have the same life.

(Also, question: Did I just watch a bunch of 20-something women have sex with a 15-year-old? This movie just got a little weird for me.)

And then there’s William himself. This was the hardest thing for me to confront: As a kid, I didn’t care that he was uncool. I didn’t care that he was being ignored and abused by everyone he was traveling with. I didn’t care that no one was being straight with him and that no one took him seriously. There’s plenty of irreverent joy to his story, but there is also a weight and sadness that I didn’t comprehend at all during those mornings when I’d pop the VHS in on the player in my room while I was getting dressed for school. The fact that everyone around him, everyone he idolizes turns out to just be self-obsessed shitbags who are only decent with him when they need something out of him is almost too much to bear. And that unrequited adoration of Penny; that desperate dying-man confession in a tumbling, screeching plane…that was all of middle school and high school for me. A solid eight years of emotions that are too big to fit inside you; that make you feel sick all the time and that that can only ever be quelled by music.

ImageStill, I wanted to be him. His “I am the enemy!” rant served as my mantra for many years, and I fancied that underneath my “sweet” surface, there was a dark and mysterious and pissed-off layer that no one knew about. There totally wasn’t, and I think I even knew that at the time. But I wanted there to be. I wanted to have secrets. I wanted to have demons. Because demons are what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be all about, and how am I supposed to truly understand art if I’m not at least a little tortured inside?

The truth is I am pretty boring, and I’ve come to terms with that. But still, the one thing that pisses me off the most is when people assume I’m a prude because I don’t fit the typical bill of rock ‘n’ roll (which most peoples’ perception of hasn’t changed since the ’80s, and yet the industry has changed so much. Time to update your stereotypes, people). Truth be told, there’s a lot less posturing and attitude going around in rock ‘n’ roll these days, but it hasn’t been completely eradicated, and damn do I know what it’s like to not be taken seriously. To always be the wallflower; the one who just can’t hang. The fresh-faced kid who keeps to herself most of the time and is just “too sweet for rock ‘n’ roll.” As recently as last year, I’ve had sources say almost exactly that to my face. I almost have to cringe when William just loses his shit and screams at Penny, and even still he doesn’t sound all that mad. Because I know exactly what that feels like. I hate it, I fucking hate it when people are surprised to learn that that I grew up on my local punk scene or hear me laugh at an off-color joke and react with great, flustered shock, or when I swear and people tell me it just sounds weird coming out of me. Even when he’s being his most sincere, he’s still just so hard to take seriously.

2000_almost_famousIt’s a bizarre thing, coming back to this movie and knowing that, unlike a lot of things in life, I can firmly point to it and say ‘This. This right here is the one and only reason I am doing what I love to do now.’ Sure, I might have thought about it otherwise, but Almost Famous is what got me off my butt and actually doing it. It’s beyond weird knowing that I set out to do something, and I went and did it. I don’t feel much different for it. But I did it. And here is what made me do it.

But at the same time, it’s also weird seeing the things I didn’t become because of this movie — I never became that mysterious, wrecked soul who found salvation in Dylan and Clapton. And I never wrote a cover story for Rolling Stone…but there’s still time for that, I suppose.

Last thought from my spontaneous re-viewing: Transcribing on a typewriter must have sucked.

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