Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Martinis and Bikinis

Through the 1993-94 school year I worked as the Arts Editor for my college newspaper. This has to be one of the best jobs I ever had, especially since nobody ever pressured me much to run anything I didn't want to, and I got to write as much or as little of the content as I wished.

I wrote most of it. The previous year, for my very first issue as Features Editor, I had assigned a story about the life of Charlie Chaplin (the movie had just come out) to a fledgling reporter. She took forever to turn it in, and when she did, it was totally unreadable. A huge number of paragraphs began "Charlie says..." which in addition to inspiring a ton of Good 'n' Plenty jokes, made it sound as though she had interviewed the long-dead Chaplin herself. I had allotted an entire page to the article, and ended up rewriting it myself at 3:30 in the morning, just hours before deadline. The final article has more or less the picture to the right taking up more than a third of the page. So I soured on using reporters pretty quickly. I found a couple I liked and stuck with them, but got into the habit of writing almost all of my section myself.

In the Arts section, we had the usual campus-only fare: so-and-so coming to do a concert. A profile on this or that staff member who was directing a play or composing something. But we also had something in which I could remain constantly engaged: current movie and album reviews. I would sometimes pawn the movie reviews off on someone else. Even for free, it isn't easy to see one or two movies each week while managing a newspaper section and doing several plays. Plus I think I was a student as well. I never, ever gave someone a music review to write. Those were mine. Had I been under pressure to include more rap, metal or what was truly, WhitneyHoustonishly popular at the time, I might have been less enthused. But there really wasn't any such pressure, so I gleefully filled the columns with the music I loved.

Most weeks I had plenty of new material to write about. I scanned release dates and requested free copies of tons of albums during this time. And a surprising number of labels complied, shipping off press kits and cds, lyric sheets and interview guidelines. I was always anxious until the mail arrived each day.

I filled out the section with stuff I stumbled upon in one way or another: browsing in record stores, recommendations from friends, unsolicited packages from labels. Mostly I just loved music, listening to it, and finding new stuff I liked. Which is pretty much the same as most people were when they were 20, I just had a way to publish my playlists. To 30,000 people.

In the spring of 1994, Elvis Costello reassembled the Attractions for Brutal Youth, and I knew I wanted to review it. His label hadn't sent it to me, so I went off to buy it at a local record store. The album in hand, I browsed around to find a second one for that week's issue. I ended up buying Martinis and Bikinis by Sam Phillips. I had never heard of her, but the cover art was interesting and she included a cover of John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth," so I figured in the worst case, I could focus on that if I had to trash the record.

But I loved it. I couldn't praise it enough. I seem to recall Mr. Costello getting very little space that week.

I was involved in a production of Hamlet at the time, and when I went to the dressing room that Friday, the guy who played Rosencrantz was thrilled that I had reviewed her. We talked a bit about the record and he suggested some more stuff I might like. Which more or less started the lengthy friendship that led directly to the start of map of july, my first band, a couple of years later.

A couple of months later, I had wrangled press tickets to see her perform at Park West. I got there early and cornered her manager, who promised me I could attend some sort of afterparty upstairs. The show was great, and afterward I found the manager again. He said he was busy, but if someone else wanted to bring me upstairs, that'd be fine. I waited a bit before accosting a guy carrying a giant keyboard case.

"I'm supposed to go to the afterparty, but no one will tell me where I need to go," I said. For some reason I said it a lot like "It's hard to find good help these days." With a Thurston Howell type accent. I guess I knew that I wasn't really supposed to go to the party, but that bluster might get me there anyway. And I guess that Thurston Howell was the most "worldly" person I could think of at the time.

He was surprised, and looked around for someone to rescue him before finally sighing and setting down his case. He led me to the elevator, and on the way up was when I realized that he was actually the keyboardist and not a roadie.

"You...were very good tonight," I said, staring at the elevator buttons, and then at my shoes.

We got to whatever floor and he pointed at a door. "Just go in there," he said, getting back on the elevator. I still had a "reporter's" notebook in my hand, largely as a prop.

I opened the door and walked inside. There I found Sam Phillips and her husband, who by now I knew was T. Bone Burnett. Burnett will be famous to most of you as the guy who put together the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and is famous to me for his work with Elvis Costello (weirdly enough) and a horde of other artists.

There was no one else in the room.

Usually, when you meet anyone with any level of celebrity, they are a little uncomfortable or awkward. But they were extremely nice. Probably because I was so uncomfortable and awkward and, being nice people, they sought to put me at ease. It was obvious to all three of us that I had no business being there. That, in fact, nobody was supposed to be there for a while yet. But we chatted weirdly about books and music in general for a few minutes. She was very small and smart, and he was very funny. They're a great couple.

I kept trying to find a good segue into getting the hell out of there, but couldn't find anything to cling to. And then a few more people came in. The band, then some label people. The Ben and Jerry store down the block had made an ice cream cake that looked like the record cover. I mingled a little, moving ever closer to the door. I got hit on by a rep from Capitol records (I'm guessing it was the press-pass I wore around my neck).

And finally, I made my escape. The cake was delicious, though.

1 comment:

Green Craig said...

What a great story. It's hard for me to imagine walking into a room with only T-Bone Burnett and Sam Phillips sitting there.