Never meet your (Billy) idols

We haven’t even reached the end of the driveway yet, and already the three girls in the back seat of my car have Snapchatted a half dozen selfies, sending them to God knows who.  Each other, probably.

Up front, Julia (who called “shotgun!”) is tweeting about what’s ahead.

It’s June, 2013, and Julia, my 15 year old daughter, my baby, the little girl who used to sing along with Barney the Purple Dinosaur, is on her way to a “Mike Stud” concert with her friends — Mike Stud being an up-and-coming hip-hop white rapper dude, I’m told, from Rhode Island. I’m the lucky dad who gets to drive this teenage fan club to the show at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, where the Ramones and Iggy Pop played some 32 years ago.

The four girls – all 15 and looking significantly older, God help me – can hardly contain their excitement, and their talk quickly turns to the pre-show “meet and greet” with Mike Stud, for which their parents (myself included) have paid extra. They are a little stressed out about what they will say when they “finally” meet this Junior Eminem.

“Oh my god, I don’t know what I’m gonna say,” says Colleen. In the rearview mirror, she appears to be talking directly to her phone.

“I’ll be like, ‘pleased to meet you, Mr. Stud,’” says Hayley.

The girls all laugh. “Mr. Stud!” they squeal in gleeful, sarcastic unison.

Hayley sighs. “I’ll probably just hug him and cry,” she admits. “I guess I’m just not that good at meeting famous people.”

And I think to myself, who is?

**

Julia and her friends have been “big fans” of Mike Stud for all of six months now, and when pressed they admit they don’t know a whole lot of his songs by name or by lyric. He’s awfully cute, though, and within a few hours they’ll each have a new social media profile photo of themselves hugging the stud that is Mike Stud.

Talk about immediate gratification! Like many of my ilk – pushing 50 years old, pushing a 40 inch waist – I’ve been a big fan – a serious fan – of any number of recording artists for more than 30 years. And I still don’t have a picture of myself with any of them. Not a one.

And on the exceedingly rare occasion when I have actually met one of those musicians who “mean so much to me,” I’ve been quite the camera-less doofus.

A doofus…like…me, trying to explain to Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello’s faithful drummer (during a chance encounter in line for the restroom at the Newport Folk Festival one year) how he’s been the “omnipresent backbeat on my car stereo” for two thirds of my life. “Sorry to bother you, but…”

That poor man, having to suffer through the gushing, babbling likes of me.

Or…like…me, feeling duty-bound to tell British pub-punk Graham Parker, after a small show in Boston 20 odd years ago, how much my recently-deceased brother JB loved his albums. “Sorry to bother you, but…” I started, and tried, and failed to explain.

“Sorry for your loss,” Graham Parker replied, nice as can be, but clearly uncomfortable.

I felt closure for my brother, who didn’t live long enough to get a photo with Graham Parker, and I felt so very stupid for myself, all at the same time.

I still cringe at these memories. But I’m glad I have them, nonetheless.

And so I ask myself – why this behavior? What compels otherwise (ostensibly) rational people to linger around after a show, in hopes of catching their favorite artist on their way to the tour bus? What makes us write a fan letter? What drives us to seek an opportunity to tell a complete stranger how much we love them and to get a photo with them?

Because we love them. We really love them.

My friend Gary loves, loves, loves Bruce Springsteen. Me? I respect Springsteen, but Gary’s devotion to Bruce is singular, impressive and highly-representative of the population of music lovers with whom I associate. He’s seen Bruce countless times in concert, and for Gary, meeting Bruce someday would literally be a dream come true.

“I dream about it often,” Gary replied to my Facebook post asking friends about their irrational fandom. “After years of thinking about what I would say, I can only hope to keep calm and say ‘thank you’ for being the best part of the last 40 years of my life.”

And to you, Gary, I say, “I totally get that.” And I know Gary’s lovely wife understands.

I bet you do, too.

In fact, I bet we all know that guy…who listens to Bob Dylan 24×7 year after year; my friend Bob named his kid “Dylan,” for goodness sakes. For Roger from the trivia pub, it’s Pink Floyd, who he claims to have seen in concert at least 120 times since 1970. (I completely and totally believe him.) For me, it’s Elvis Costello.

The bands may differ – 80s new wave, 60/70s British classic/progressive, late 70s punk, country – but all semi-obsessive music fans have one thing in common: the music we love has become the soundtrack to our lives. It’s always on. And it always has been. We’ve been listening as long as we can remember, and we keep going to see them in concert.

As we get older, our favorite artists’ catalogs get deeper (through new releases that we tell our friends are “brilliant!” and through seemingly bottomless pits of rarities, b-sides and “lost” live shows that we can now afford to acquire, or that are easily Googlable and YouTube-able).

And we wake up one day and realize we’ve been listening to certain bands almost every day for more than half our lives. That’s a relationship longer than most marriages I know.

As we get older, we also get closer to our musical heroes. For some of us, “closer” means a deep and meaningful one-sided relationship with the artist’s catalog. For others, “closer” means finally having front row seats after years of squinting from the nosebleed section.

And for others still, “closer” means a once in a lifetime face to face conversation with that special musician or singer.

My friend Jennifer, via Facebook, tells a wonderful story that illustrates the joys of “oh my god I met them and got my picture taken with them” closer: “The Bee Gees had been my first concert ever in 1979, and I saw them again in 1989… and at the 1989 concert I got to be front row, and on a dare I held up my Bee Gees lunch box for them to see. Barry actually stopped playing, elbowed Robin and they both pointed at me, winked and laughed. It was really great. I never thought I could top that until 1999, when Philips Electronics sent me to Las Vegas to manage the PR for the ‘One Night Only’ concert. I got to go back stage with them and introduce myself…I kind of recounted the lunch box story, but didn’t want to look too crazy, so I scaled it back a bit. I told them I was a huge fan and I was able to get my picture with them. Barry introduced me to his granddaughter and we chatted a bit. It was really amazing just being in the same room with the three of them. They were truly so patient and appreciative and it was a dream come true for me!”

Lucky lady, that Jennifer!  She knows how to meet famous people.

PJ, my friend from high school, has seen Cheap Trick about 12 times, by his reckoning. “They’re a fun band who keeps it simple and loves to play, no matter how large or small the crowd is,” he tells me via Facebook. “When I met the drummer (afterwards), I was like, ‘great show, enjoy the music and look forward to future recordings…’ It was simple. You treat them just like anyone else…just thank them for their work and wish them continued success. Too many people go crazy when meeting a celebrity, and I believe they know when you’re a fake or overdoing it.”

Amy, a friend from way back, somehow became actual friends with Dave Wakeling, lead singer of the English Beat. Like, normal, “drop me a line when you are town” friends.

I am green with envy.

My college friend Lisa has seen U2 about 15 times or so, but has never met them. “I’ve lost count, actually,” she writes via Facebook, adding, “how sad is that?” She should compare notes with Mike M., another college friend, who has seen U2 at least 20 times without meeting them (and John Fogerty at least 10 times). My friend David H. adds that he too has “a high U2 count,” making it sound a little like rock and roll cholesterol.

Lisa, Mike and David are like so many people I know (and so many people you know, I bet) who have developed real, measurable, meaningful relationships with “their” bands, whether they’ve ever met them or not.

Which is why we keep going back to see them, over and over again.

But talk to a person who is not a semi-obsessive music fan and they seem stunned that someone could, and would, see a band more than a few times or feel so strongly about musical strangers on a stage.

When I, filled with jealousy and reverence, tell certain friends that Jim, the quiet guy I worked with years ago at the bank, has seen the Ramones 12 times, they literally shake their head in disbelief. When I mention Chelle from the trivia pub, who has seen Kenny Chesney 15 times, they just don’t get it.

But when I point out that they’ve probably gone to 40 or more Red Sox games in their lifetimes – the Sox play 80 or so home games each year, for goodness sakes – they just don’t see the two experiences as corollary.  They’re proud to put their Fenway Park photos on Facebook, but they’re vaguely scandalized when you post your snapshot from a Tuesday night Gang of Four concert at the Paradise Club, just a mile or two up the street from the ballpark.

It seems that some people view concert-going after 40 as a self indulgent, juvenile extravagance — a sign of arrested development or middle age crisis. I feel a little bad for these friends; it seems like they have closed the door on a part of their life that must have been important to them at one point, not too long ago.

I mean, who didn’t grow up with the radio on?

**

It’s late 2013, and I’m sitting so close to Elvis Costello that I can’t help but photograph the bottom of his shoe.

This is maybe the 35th time I have seen him in concert, and at this point, I am a little disappointed he doesn’t recognize me. And I’m a little surprised he hasn’t taken out a restraining order. Not that I’ve stalked him, or anything. Seriously, I haven’t.

But I just keep showing up. And I still haven’t gotten my awkward “hello” moment or a selfie with the man.

But one night, I got to be Elvis Costello.

Back in September of 1997, Glenn Tilbrook – lead singer of the much beloved British band Squeeze – was playing a solo show at the Met in Providence, Rhode Island, to which I went with my friend Bob (a.k.a. “soon-to-be father of a baby to be named Dylan”).

Alone on stage in blue jeans, a white t-shirt, an acoustic guitar and a bottle of beer, Glenn started singing “From a Whisper to a Scream” – a duet he sang with Elvis in 1982.

Strange choice, a duet for a solo show. So when Glenn abruptly stopped and asked for a co-singer from the audience, every hand shot up to volunteer.

Somehow he picked me.

I climbed on stage and sang the Elvis part. And I gave it my all. The song ended, and I climbed offstage to about 100 or so high-fives from friends and strangers alike. And on the way out of the club later that night, after the second encore, Glenn was greeting fans. He signed my ticket “Thanks, Elvis.”

I have never, ever, been the same.

Too many years later – ok, about 18 years later – my friend Bob (a.k.a. “the guy who named his kid Dylan”) and I are at the Brighton Music Hall in Boston to see Glenn Tilbrook, he of Squeeze, singing solo yet again.

It is a Thursday night. Leaning against the bar and watching the opening act wrestle with his acoustic guitar, I turn to tell Bob how funny it would be if Glenn called me up on stage again. But Bob’s not standing to me. Glenn Tilbrook is. He’s also watching the opening act, enjoying a beer.

“Sorry to bother you,” I say, using my go-to meet-a-musical-celebrity line. “About 15 years ago, you pulled me up on stage, and we sang a duet together.”

Glenn smiles broadly. “I don’t remember that at all!” he says, feigning shock.

Bob chimes in. “If you were his best friend, Glenn, he’d never let you forget it.”

The three of us toast our plastic beer cups. Close to 50 years old now, I seem to have gotten a bit better at meeting my musical idols.

Glenn takes the stage.  No second once-in-a-lifetime duet for me tonight. But I do join the crowd for a “Black Coffee in Bed” sing-along.

Almost as good.

I try to explain all this to Julia, my 15 year old, but she’s vaguely horrified. Dads are supposed to drive kids to concerts, not go to them! And wait 30 years to meet a musical idol? No way. For Julia and her smartphone-wielding friends, everything is immediate, as evidenced by her selfie with Mike Stud.

Me? I’m still waiting. And neither Elvis nor myself are getting any younger at this point.

And then – just last week, on the “Elvis Costello Collector’s Guild” Facebook page – a lovely youngish woman in England posted a photo of herself with my ultimate hero, Mr. Costello, captioned with words that resonated: “The picture I’ve waited 37 years for.”

So I can only conclude — there is still hope for me…and for the rest of us crazy music fans, yet.

**

Post script, May 2017: Gary got his photo with Springsteen.