This week I saw Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty, a film exploring the 20-year career of one of my all-time favourite bands. After being awestruck by Crowe’s heartfelt and honest rockumentary, I couldn’t help but envy the writer. The man makes a living by combining two of his greatest passions, writing and music, and Pearl Jam Twenty is just one example.
We can all recall Singles, that modern-day romantic comedy starring the Seattle grunge scene from soundtrack and “live” club performances, to Pearl Jam’s role as Matt Dillon’s band, Citizen Dick. There was also the unforgettable Almost Famous, a semi-autobiographical movie about a young journalist touring with a band on the brink of stardom. Crowe’s then-wife, Nancy Wilson (former member of Heart) composed the entire score for the film. Music geeks like me would also spot alt-musician Mark Kozelek in the role of Larry, a band member. (Kozelek’s non-mainstream single, “Have You Forgotten?” would also have a cameo in Crowe’s remake of Vanilla Sky.) I once had the honour of chatting – or rather, gushing – to Kozelek after a show, and asked him what it was like to work with Cameron Crowe. The musician looked at me quite blankly. “Well you know, he’s like, a regular guy.”
Which really begs the question, how does Crowe do it? Or rather, how does he do it without being completely starstruck in the presence of these talented and often quite charismatic beings? Or maybe it’s just me. While Crowe has not only established the art of playing it cool but also becoming friends with a band, I’m the shrieking fan who once waited in line at a Best Buy store for the Foo Fighters to autograph a poster—and asked a wincing Dave Grohl if I could plleeeaase shake his hand.
When I was in college in the mid-nineties, I actually had the opportunity to interview my first band for my university’s Arts and Entertainment newspaper. Naturally, I chose a local alt-country group I was in love with at the time, called The Billy’s (apostrophe intended). Like Crowe, I wanted more than anything to be a rock journalist, so I spent my dorm cafeteria wage on a mini cassette recorder and a new red top. After anxiously arriving backstage for the interview, my 21-year-old body nearly passed out at the lead singer’s first words. “Do you want a beer?”
In my defence as a journalist, I did ask them your standard, thoughtful questioning in between sips of Rolling Rock: How did you guys get together? Describe your songwriting process. But fulfilling my curiosity proved way too much of a kick, because I undoubtedly answered every word they said with dreamy eyes and some elaborate variation of, “Wow.” The band’s reaction? Well, in the chuckling words of an exasperated guitarist: “We’re NOT that great.” He said this more than once, as though I’d really missed the boat on this band. I was dumbfounded.
To me, the music of The Billy’s meant dancing just below the stage with a girlfriend at a parking lot show, homecoming weekend. Like any band I loved, they gave me that escape, that retreat right into…the moment. I was right there, never losing myself in a daydream when I could instead immerse myself into rootsy hooks and pull-up-a-barstool lyrics. I absorbed the melody as though it were my last chicken Pad Thai. And although I undoubtedly took home some hearing loss, I couldn’t get enough of that loud, pulsating bass in my chest. It was rock, but it meant calm. My mind would only begin to analyse after the show, when I wished that I too could be a local rock musician. There would be no need to make a dime. Happiness was all of this.
I wanted to tell this band’s story to everyone because I honestly appreciated what they gave to me. And if doing so could sell them a couple more CDs, it was my way of giving back. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s longed for a life that lets you do what you love while making a difference for even one person. Or a five-piece ensemble.
Through the years, I’ve become much better at extinguishing those fanatical fireworks when approaching musicians. Sure, it’s been a process. You meet some. You may accidentally smooch one or two, like Penny Lane. But through age and experience, I’m finally able to take that step back—well, most of the time—and remember that musicians are also human, complete with questionable flossing habits and sometimes, day jobs.
Still, I will always look up to bands. It’s not just that otherworldliness quality of their art. It’s that they’re out there, creating, because they love it. As Crowe learned from Pearl Jam and I discovered through the Billy’s, these bands recognise their art as a gift. A lifeline. And so they treat it as such—with or without a paycheck. Which is the way it should be.
Some of us just learn later than others.