Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why the Very Famous Stop Going Out

I was in a line for tickets to Disney On Ice at San Francisco’s Cow Palace sometime in the mid-90s when a guy behind me started bellowing, “Joe! Hey, Joe! Over here!” I assumed he’d recognized an acquaintance named Joe, but was mistaken. Whom he’d recognized was San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, at the time enjoying — if that’s the operative word — a status in the Bay Area just between God and Jesus Christ. Joe had apparently imagined he could come see the show with his wife and daughters, and they were indeed able to see it, but only after a mob of security guards rescued them from the frenzied mob that formed in response to the bellowing of the guy behind me.

If you have a lot of fame, you can always be assured of getting a table at a restaurant — and of being harassed while you try to enjoy your meal. Between the countless tens of millions who want more of it and the several thousand who want far less, and not counting the weirdos and Buddhists who want none at all, there might be around half a dozen people in the world who have an amount with which they’re happy.

I was friends with David Bowie when he was a couple of months into his Ziggy Stardust-fueled ascent to the toppermost of the British poppermost. When he and his then-wife took me and Big Patti to dinner in London’s West End, he was the only diner there with flame-colored hair, and was approached, while he tried to enjoy his meal and our company, by an endless succession of wide-eyed fans. Not one of them wasn’t well-mannered, but not one didn’t compel him to put down his soup spoon, glass, or fork. And not one actually wanted his autograph for himself; it was invariably for a sibling or friend. It amused me to see how his fans seemed to imagine that they weren’t intruding if it was on behalf of an unseen other.

I was famous on a small scale myself there for a couple of years, around the time the noted music journalist Bud Scoppa referred to me as The King of LA. It was very much what game theorists might have described as a zero-sum situation. On the one hand, my having managed to woo ‘n’ win Big Patti might have owed, if only subliminally, to my fame. On the other hand, what very hard work! Well-meaning people with whom I had no particular desire to interact were forever coming over and telling me, at best, how much they liked my work, but what do you say after “thanks”? I’d say exactly that, and then holler, in body language, “Off you go then,” and they’d continue to stand there beaming at me, reveling in the fact of our interaction. Over and over and over, when I finally excused myself, I felt as though hurting the feelings of people who’d been nothing but sweet. Be gracious and accommodating with people and they think you want to be BFFs. Be self-protectively brusque and get a reputation as a stuck-up so-and-so. I can well understand why the very famous stop going out.

Not, of course, that you have to actually be famous. For a number of years, it was impossible for me to walk through an airport, say, without somebody stopping me, squinting at me accusatorily, and demanding, “Hey, you are somebody, aincha?”

Become sufficiently famous as an athlete or performing artist, of course, and you become fair game for magazines and Websites in the business of exposing dirty laundry. But American celebrities don’t know how soft they’ve got it compared to their British counterparts. In the UK, which earlier gave us Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens, there are magazines unashamedly devoted to photographs of celebrities’ cellulite, moobs (man boobs, you see), and dark underarms. We tend to think of celebrities who lash out at paparazzi as brats and dickheads, but who among us would be comfortable with barbarically unflattering photographs of us being published above captions like, “The other morning when s/he went out to pick up the morning newspaper, So-and-So was hideous enough to terrify impressionable children.”

I always loathed The Eagles, but I’m not sure I’ll ever write a line better than this, from The Sad Café: “Fortune smiles on some/And lets the rest go free."

[My life-affirming new album Sorry We're Open can't understand why you've been so remiss about listening to it. Facebookers: Read more of my little essays, and in fact subscribe to 'em, here.]

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