Directed by Cameron Crowe
By Richard Meltzer
In the merry sequence of things, Cameron Crowe was the third of a conspicuous trio of teenage rock-crit wannabes, junior spuds from the gitgo, whose paths crossed mine in the early 1970s.
The biggest cheesepuff of the bunch, if also initially the most ambitious, Jon Tiven began publishing the mimeo rag New Haven Rock Press during his sophomore year of high school or so. To look at the damn thing now, a single staple holding 20-some off-white pages together, it might be tough to figure how something so lame and ugly managed to endure the three-four years it did, but when mommy and daddy foot the bills, merit is inconsequential. Having grown up in the mansion where that spooky pic The Other later got shot, he made no bones about being what could be loosely termed a rich kid–upper middle class, we today would call him–but without the “finish” his class would typically afford him: a dumb little, poor little u.m.c. dipshit, younger than his years. Ein Kind without much Wunder.
On weekends down from Connecticut, crashing sometimes at Nick Tosches’s pad or mine, he brought along Tupperwares full of homecooked crap–his mother didn’t trust Manhattan food. Back then, with the drinking age in New York still 18, nobody ever got asked for ID, and Nick and I would always try to get him drunk. He’d order some wimp drink like a sloe gin fizz, and we’d tell him, “Jon, this bar has a two-drink minimum.” He’d get another, and then we’d hand him some bullshit like “The custom here is to make your own bar”–raise a forearm to your chin and drink around it (haw!)–and like a monkey he’d go for it. (Never met another 16’er so slowww on the draw.)
When he stayed at my place, he’d have my girlfriend take him to neighborhood fop stores–“boutiques”–where he’d shop for the sorts o’ things rock stars wore: satin, velvet, “English cut.” (Even girl-things with darts were okay if he could imagine Procol Harum wearing them.) He was one thudding fool for platform footery.
Finally, his parents sprung for a room at the New York Hilton, giving him occasion to invite this gal he met at a Nick party up for some room service plus, later claiming they’d whoopeed and he’d come 13 times…say what?…which led us to believe he’d never even jerked off.
If Tiven’s zine had truly reflected his misadventures as a neophyte simp, an amateur’s apprentice, that would’ve been one thing, but all it did was blend the same old shit (“With this album, Elton is performing to his potential…5 stars”) with a painful preadolescent cuteness (“Oatmeal Harv” was his favorite pseudonym). Issue after issue, nothing in the New Haven Rock Press spoke even generically of (or from) the “outrageousness of youth”–or the center of grav of its goofy enthusiasm. With an abiding Junior Achievement blandness, it sought merely to coalesce with the least anarchic, least invigorating aspects of the burgeoning rock media, to simulate “rockmag” status and in so doing score mailings of promo albs, tickets to Rod Stewart in Yonkers…oh goody.
Hey–the groovy myth of Everyperson a writer/publisher be damned. 99.9 percent of all zines–then, now, ever–are lame, tame, and insipid. As fate would have it, though, one of the great vanity rock sheets of all time was a contemporary of the NHRP. The progeny of a core of young hellions from the Bronx and Queens (only slightly older than Tiven himself) who would later morph into the protopunk band the Dictators, Teenage Wasteland Gazette could usually be counted on to make a fine mess. Both personally and ideologically, TWG regarded Tiven as a doofus and made him its designated enemy. “The New Haven Rock Press,” wrote editor Andy Shernoff, “really sucks my noodle. If I see another fuckin review by Jon Tiven I will take action. I challenge Tiven to any form of competition he wants. I prefer 12 oz. gloves but he may want GOLF (they have a lotta country clubs in N. Haven). Eat five-iron, limey lover!”
When I told Shernoff that once, after Tiven had split our apartment, my girlfriend and I found a load of doodoo in the crapper, unflushed, but no toilet paper, an occurrence we were hard put to explain, he devoted a full page to the incident, closing with the following hypotheses:
“1) Mr. Tiven may have used his hand.
“2) Mr. Tiven may collect used toilet paper.
“3) In an economy move Mr. Tiven may have eaten his toilet paper.
“4) It is a well-known fact that citizens of the well-to-do suburbs of the ‘nutmeg’ state maintain a live-in maid. One of the doodies of such a maid is to wipe the heinies of family members. Possibly Mr. Tiven is too young & immature to be trained to do the deed himself.”
I haven’t seen Tiven since ’76, but on evidence it would seem he made it through adolescence. Dunno ’bout the years between, but lately he’s producing records by B.B. King and Wilson Pickett and writing songs for aging blues and soul people–ain’t life funny? The only thing I’ve heard is Buddy Guy’s “Heavy Love”: too heavy for a man to bear alone, he could use a little help, see? (Still makin’ with the cutesy.) I leave it to soul music aficionado Kevin Kiley to fill out the picture:
“He ruined Pickett’s comeback CD with shit arrangements, REAL BAD production, GARBAGE songs written by him and his fucking wife, and bad playing in general. I hate most of today’s records. Even my old favorites’ new records suck, due to crummy ‘modern’ production techniques. I may be a dinosaur, but I know what the shit SHOULD sound like, and Tiven ain’t got a fucking CLUE!
“At the Luther Ingram benefit in Memphis last year he was a self-absorbed prick, and a real asshole namedropper. He played guitar there with Mack Rice and Swamp Dogg. He brought his own guitar, one of those stupid-looking things with a whacky headstock (how do you come to MEMPHIS to play at a SOUL show without a fucking FENDER?!), he overplayed with a rock tone that had NOTHING to do with soul music, and fucked up one of Swamp’s tunes, even though there were CHARTS!
“There was a birthday party for Rufus Thomas. Everyone was smiling, laughing, having a good time. Tiven had his dour, ‘gotta look cool’ mug on. He seemed taken aback that I didn’t know his name. During our entire conversation, he rarely looked at me, but was instead surveying the happenings around the room. He had finished a CD on Sir Mack Rice, and I asked what kinda stuff was on it. ‘You’ll just have to wait to hear it.’ It was like he was thinking, ‘Leave me alone, I’m too cool, I don’t want to miss anything by talking to YOU.’ What a rude, condescending mother-fucker!”
For almost 30 years, the single word which might best fit the gestalt of NHRP’s “Los Angeles correspondent,” Danny Sugerman, the face he’s with extreme volition worn for the world, is SLEAZE. The night I met him, at an LA party in ’72, the first thing he told me was “Hey man, I’m a heroin addict!”–uttered with a great deal of teenage pride, like What can you do to top this? How cooool.
I’ve never known the veracity of his boast vis-à-vis then, but in the lead story of Methadone Today, Volume III, Number 4 (www.tir.com/-yourtype/
v3_n04.htm), Danny waxes loud and long on select details of his 18th detox attempt. A tour-de-force combo of personal confession (the bitter–ouch–Truth) and whole-cloth William Burroughs, of empiricism and giddy egoism (nothing in the closet ’bout me-me-ME), “Delayed Onset Withdrawal” is the first thing I’ve read by the guy since 1980.
Sleaze, and if there’s another word, maybe Jim, y’know, Morrison–he’s made great hay of their ten- (or was it five-?) minute relationship. Though others who were there insist that when the Doors still included Jim, before he took his death cab to Paris, young Danny’s bond to the Lizard King was no more, no less, than to lurk about the band office seeking ways to be “useful,” opening fan mail and perhaps going out for donuts, and while I’ve heard two of the three living Doors mention in passing that the growed-up Danny made their skin crawl, the dude has by sheer tenacity parlayed the lurk and its aftermath into an official calling card as “longtime Doors associate.”
In ’80, he fleshed out and flavored Jerry Hopkins’s stab at a Morrison bio, something variously described as a skeleton of research and a flawed m.s. that had been lying around unpublishable for years. The result was No One Here Gets Out Alive, a ponderous and despicable piece of celebrity fluff, heavy on the “dark side” (ooh, Jim was such a bad boy) and including a cameo by a kid named “Danny.” When it came out, he phoned to beckon me into the night: “Let’s celebrate Jim.” Uh, thanks but no thanks…I’d rather walk my schnauzer.
In my subsequent review, I wrote: “Hey, this book stinks. I don’t wanna really play its game, but one error in particular really irks my recollective whatsis. I was there at the ‘infamous’ Singer Bowl show of ’68 and all I gotta say’s Jim was wearing brown leather (not black) and if ‘hundreds of teenagers were bleeding’ at concert’s end (p. 195) then I guess it must’ve been menstrual or out in the parking lot because it certainly wasn’t within proximity of the stage. Little things like that (including bogus alternate death scenarios and the scumbait sham of coddling the myth that Jim–like Paul–might still be alive) would be enough to make the cognoscenti puke if not for the trail of vom independently left in the wake of the BOOK AS IDEA.” Idea? Oh, something about the intrinsic–inseverable–connection between genius and perversion, or creativity and excess…or something.
Since then he’s had his hand in another two or possibly three Doors books, plus a Guns n’ Roses book…say, that’s really branching out. I think the word for this is “rock-sploitation,” evincing an entrepreneurial, as opposed to strictly journalistic, agenda. (When, to cover the release of Oliver Stone’s The Doors, a European TV crew was dispatched to LA, he wasn’t deemed a relevant enough “journalist” to bother interviewing.)
For a glimpse at another of his entrepreneurial fortes–rock manager–check out Please Kill Me, where on p. 251 Ron Asheton tells a good’un ’bout the time Danny left his “charge,” a fucked-up Iggy Pop (wearing a dress), to fend for himself when three surf louts began pounding him outside a David Bowie show, leaving him bloody and minus a couple teeth on the pavement in Hollywood.
Last I heard about Danny he was married to Fawn Hall–remember her? (What a perfectly corrupt universe.)
For whatever reason(s), Danny didn’t make it to the first and only mass gathering of the U.S. rockscribble crowd, known to history, generally and simply, as the Rockwriters Convention, Memphis ’73, but Tiven was there, as was San Diego’s Cameron Crowe. By sucking up to the marketing director for Ardent Records–a subsidiary of Stax, which underwrote the whole silly event–Tiven had a major hand in putting together the guest list, guaranteeing a sizable zine contingent. Since the National Rock Writers Association, as Stax had dubbed the throng, was an org of no card-carrying members, nor even of cards, to be among the chosen 140-plus signified equal parts much and nothing. Given the basic unreality of the affair, its dream-within-a-dream sound and fury, all intimations of pecking order were foolish and fruitless (the rock-crit “profession” being all of five-six years old anyway).
Still and all, a couple things about Cameron set him down a peg from even the rank and file of zine greenhorn dust-suckers. Unless he had an NHRP affiliation that no one was aware of (SD correspondent-designate?), he for all intents & purps was not even a–how you say?–symbolically employed writer-in-training, most likely just someone Tiven knew, or knew of, through the teen-auxiliary grapevine. While hardly the sole unaffiliated writeboy at the convention, or the only one who had yet to earn a dime from writing, he was for damnsure, in more ways than one, the YOUNGEST such being in attendance: 16, maybe only 15, a goony-goofy gosh-oh-gee KID, blowing on a goddam kazoo. Or maybe an ocarina.
Recorder? Something. Playing Name This TV Themesong with anyone who would sit still for 30 seconds, not really that tough a score on a bus full of stationary writefolk en route to a Budweiser brew tour–playing it with, to, and at us…Bewitched… The Flintstones…Father Knows Best…The Jetsons…give the boy a bubble gum cigar!
Which ain’t quite the same as leading with your own chin, or wearing a lampshade on your head, or actually demanding, Pay attention, dammit–hey, he wasn’t that assertive–but the Cameron I met on the bus was certainly more forward–sassy–cheeky–than “William Miller,” the sullen little cocksucker standing in for him in this flick he’s got out now, Almost Famous. More cheerful and outgoing, he wurn’t no self-conscious smallfry (taller than me, and I was 28). Why he would go and turn himself into a solemn sawed-off goody-goody geek–someone less bearable than he was at that age–is a mystery. ‘Cause in ’73 he was, well, bearable. (More, at any rate, than either Tiven or Sugerman.)
In the months following the convention, he wrote for the San Diego Door and Creem (at the time edited by former San Diegan Lester Bangs, who’d also been on the Bud bus), before eventually landing in Rolling Stone. When people I meet these days find out I once myself wrote for the fugging Stone, they ooh and ah, then I tell ’em, “Sure, but fortunately I’ve had the good sense to never stick my penis in a garbage disposal.” It’s debatable whether the Stone had ever been a class venue for the writing of rockwriters–appearing in its pages was basically always about visibility and money. Well before there was anything like a rockwrite style sheet–a by-the-numbers for dealing with this thing called rock, a throbbing whatsem that for a while remained relatively nascent-and-nasty–in the rock/underground/counterculture press at large, Rolling Stone had one in spades. Heavy-handed editors–the meanest in the biz–would routinely (as a matter of policy) alter your text without consulting you; delete entire paragraphs if they contained the itsiest allusion to people or things the “fact checker” of the day was having trouble finding backup on; try to coerce you out of positions you’d taken on favored musical celebs. By the time Cameron showed up, the paper was little more than a high-water marker for self-effacing, slave-drudge careerism: the most conspicuous place, nationally, to have your copy butchered, your ideas reshaped to fit the moment’s market-driven party line.
Salon.com has called Almost Famous “a sweet-natured paean to the ’70s, a time when…editors at magazines like Rolling Stone told their staff to write the truth and damn the consequences”–what a hoot! First of all, there were no other mags “like” the Stone, but the only “truth” it sought was a sprinkling of sensationalism (“Dead Busted in N.O.–Set-Up Suspected”). Some other review claimed that the Stone in those days ran “more exposés than puff pieces.” Gimme a break: the Stone INVENTED the rock ‘n’ roll puff piece.
Rolling Stone in the 70s was, as it remains today, a TRADE PAPER, a record industry HYPE SHEET, a promulgator of mass compliance in the Consumer Sector, a principal factor in the dumbing, maiming, and calming down of the public’s taste for a rock-roll beast that had once indeed been not only wild & crazy but GENUINELY ANARCHIC. (Radical!–with or without the superadding of topical content.) The very idea, as nearly every review has put it, of the film’s “poking fun” at Rolling Stone…whew. Would you have “poked fun” at Nixon for killing two million Southeast Asians? Hey, folks: Rolling Stone is not some venerable institution in need, from time to time, of a good-natured lampoon or two. Like MTV to follow, it has for a longgggg time been one of the big things GRAVELY WRONG WITH THE WORLD.
Jimmy Olsen incarnate, the youthsome Mr. Crowe accepted the R.S. style sheet implicitly, in all likelihood worked very hard, but essentially got and kept the gig when it was discovered that rock stars, such a sensitive lot, were less intimidated by him than by actual functional grownups, who had the disconcerting habit of asking grownup questions. He would never, for inst, have thought to ask Jimmy Page, as interviewers already had, whether the guitarist, pre-Led Zeppelin, had in fact “done” a certain Linda E., famous for later marrying Someone Big–done her (he’d privately boasted) with a PICKLE. Cameron’s write-up of Led Zep demonstrated his ability to fill pages as glibly as the next bozo, and a tad more affably to boot. Y’know: cheerfully. But it offered scarcely a hint of the service-with-a-smile he would provide the Singer-Songwriter gang in the years ahead–as its advocate, mouthpiece, interlocutor, shill…its virtual publicist and “man inside” the Stone.
Ah, the gang: I knew it well. I’d had an encounter with one of its thugs, see, and in the process got tossed by said mag for telling–what was it?–oh yes, the truth. This was ’72. After several false starts, Jackson Browne finally had an album out, which seemed a good occasion to bring to light some interesting hokum from his past–I’d known the mutha since ’67. So I did the first feature on him for Rolling Stone or anywhere else–a rave, for crying out loud, and he freaking hated it, thought it made him look “too punk.” And what might be so wrong with that? Before 12 people knew who the fuck he was, he was like some weird-isn’t-the-word cross between the Young Marble Giants, say–or from a later universe: Cat Power–and Byron or Shelley. On his first visit to New York, he backed up (and horizontal-danced with) the fabulous NICO, had a connection to Lou Reed and the Warhol crowd, blah blah blooey. So I talked all this stuff up–what the hey–it was what I thought would make him MOST APPEALING. And he’s so upset he gets Asylum Records prez David Geffen to call the Stone and have me booted, good riddance, don’t come back.
Four years later, I was eating at South Town Soul Food in LA when Jackson walked in with gang sister number one, Linda Ronstadt. Not wanting her exposed to my cooties, he motions for her to stay put, struts over, sits down, and in less than a minute explains to me how it is. “We singer-songwriters”–he always relished being part of something (but imagine calling yourself such hogwipe)–“feel we get a better shake from this Cameron kid…he never challenges us…accepts our side of the story…we don’t have to worry what he’ll say…no offense, but…” I.e., writers exist to write about musicians, bub…so go wash dishes or something.
To some extent, Lester Bangs was prob’ly cheated by posterity when he got pigeonholed in stone as a punk-rock scribbler, more or less, but at least there’s some oompah to that. Just dig it if your rockwrite credential consisted to an inordinate degree of your coverage of Jackson, Linda, and related twaddle–a subset of the rock mainstream which by the mid-70s was almost Exhibit A of how far rock had sunk, how far it had gone in the direction of ceasing-to-be. Not to mention the decidedly SOFT edge (and LIGHT weight) implicit in such a number: being that kind of rockwriter…yow. (Where’s the existential reverb in that?)
Anyway, after a tour of Stone duty had given him enough chops to deal with nonrock matters, Cameron wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a youth-demographic pile of pulp which few people in LA ever seriously considered–re his contention (and his publisher’s marketing premise)–a work of nonfiction. Like had Cameron, by now in his 20s, actually gone back to school, where he impersonated (and passed for) a student? Not v. many thought so. Which is fine, who cares, but anyhow I haven’t read it, nor did I see the ’82 film of the same name (for which he got both script and “novel” credit), nor have I seen any of the later cinematic thingies he’s written, directed, or produced, except for the current monstrosity.
I’m probably not the person to judge his oeuvre, but Almost Famous, which he wrote, directed, and produced, and which purportedly draws its content from the dawn’s early light of his own rockwrite apprenticeship, strikes me as insufferable dogmeat, coming from the same neverneverland (w/ the briefest shot of nipples thrown in) as a bad episode of Happy Days. A first-string ditz based on the auteur’s MOTHER provides plot annoyance throughout (hey, she’s a player). Has there been such parental nonexclusion in an alleged rock film since Bye Bye Birdie? All-age sentimental slop: the sort of film that if it wasn’t nominally a rock film you’d bring in violins to ensure, and intensify, audience submission at every emotional checkpoint. The scene toward the end where the William kid wags a finger at the guitarist (whose music he so-o-o respects) for mistreating the groupie (who respects and loves the bloke), thus triggering plot resolutions that culminate in fame and fortune for both (and vicarious gratification for the groupie), is something Ron Fucking Howard wouldn’t put in one of his dogmeat films. And the actual “rock” sound track? Well, the FIRST TWO TUNES are the Chipmunks’ Xmas single and Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”–ye gods. (Don’t wanna turn off the grandmas.)
Aside from all the references to Creem and Rolling Stone, and the recurrent presence of Lester Bangs as dramatis persona, Almost Famous is clearly a fiction film. It would be kind of absurd to try and extract from it anything specifically autobiographical re its director’s own historical past, and/or his present retrospect on such biz, but shoot–long as we’re here–let’s go for it. To wit: Does Cameron Crowe, former rockwriter, have the self-awareness to grasp the true basis of his early career? (Do the Jimmy Olsens–cub reporters for Dotted-Line Central–even in retirement realize they were once dupes and decoys of the first water?) Possibly not, but by recasting the setup from the p.o.v. of an utter bumpkin/child/innocent, by using the b/c/i as a model of generic reporterly integrity, by going SO wide of the personal-historical mark–assuming, of course, the guy remembers anything pre-Ridgemont High–the frigging movie registers on my shit detector (don’t know ’bout yours) as a willful act of evasion. A gross cultural-personal “lie.”
All this poppycock with little William as “the enemy”–someone bands have reason to fear!–feels suspiciously like what in football parlance you’d call the ol’ misdirection play. Sure, you bet–the mid-70s Cameron, like most of his colleagues, did at times have to wear down or slip under bands’ defenses in pursuit of et cetera, yet even after repeated encounters manymost of his targets welcomed his amiable crit-cum-hype. Compared to the rest of the write pack, even after he’d grown a bit, he remained inherently harmless. The millennium Cameron, meanwhile, would like us to view li’l Will as anything but harmless: a tough little bulldog dead set on “getting the story” (when, in any case, “story” and “truth” are separate domains of the journaloid firmament).
But like so what. A shitty movie suggested by an unaffecting (if “successful”) life. They make ’em all the time.
What’s troublesome is the movie’s use of Lester. I won’t even complain about Philip Seymour Hoffman, who after makeup and coaching isn’t totally unlike Lester–he’s just not especially like him. Did they get the mustache right? Well, he only had one about a tenth of the time (’70-’83) that I knew him. Cigarettes? If in his lifetime he sometimes smoked, he was hardly a smoker (drank far more bottles of Romilar–full bottles–than he smoked individual cigs). (If you want an actor’s version of somebody quitelike Lester, personally like him in significant mammal ways, rent Gus Van Sant’s first feature, Mala Noche. Tim Streeter is Lester to a T. And not too far afield–don’t laugh–is Smiley Burnette, the comic sidekick in old Gene Autry films.)
And why not use Lester? A dab of Lester will add a touch of class–certainly of interest–to virtually any proceeding. (A little’ll go a long way.) But for Cameron to have him bouncing around as the movie’s roving “disclaimer”–a guy who’d rather listen to the Stooges than the Eagles, who knows the difference between commodity and culture–is BAD FAITH, pure and simple. At least that’s what Sartre would call it.
What’s laughable–and downright insidious–is Cameron actually believes Lester “influenced” him. He’s said so in a score of interviews. Lots of folks are claiming he influenced them, like this third-rate gossip at the LA Times, Patrick Goldstein. When he wrote full tilt, Lester was a STAND-UP IDEOLOGUE, a man on a total-assault LIFE MISSION–not some careerist cluck lockstepping to the illusions of payday and acclaim. Conviction and contention oozed out of him like they did from any frontline 50s beat poet. He influenced the likes of Cameron and Patrick about as much as he influenced Clinton and Reagan.
The dictionary def.: “1 : to affect or alter by intangible means : sway 2 : to have an effect on the condition or development of : modify”–‘s a matter of cause/effect. To have caused (if he did) budding young Cameron to perform acts not in kind: is that influence? As far as rockwriters go, the whole last 30 years of ’em, with the exception of Metal Mike Saunders, Lester influenced NO ONE. He was the end of a line–believe it!–not the beginning of one. Even “inspired” would be too strong a word, too active. At best, Cameron and his ilk received inspiration, or let’s put it this way: perceived what they received to be inspiration. From bad faith to blind faith…
In all probability (and with all due respect), on the hottest writing day of the rock phase of his professional life, Mr. C. Crowe was not one of rock-crit’s TOP TWENTY-FIVE figures (list available upon request). He was simply one of the era’s more readable hacks–a cheerful, good-natured hack, but still a hack–one about whom the best and worst that can be said is he was benign. As in: he didn’t cause cancer, nerve damage, birth defects, or ingrown toenails. But in the merry scheme of things, considering the range of hands, dealt and undealt, some if not all of us have lived, embraced, fought, raved, and died for, what the bloody, bleeping hell is BENIGN?
If you go and see his stupid flick, please keep that question in mind.
SPUDS. They’re there to keep the rest of us honest.
So don’t y’fall down on the job, y’hear?