Having those actors in our house last week got me to thinking (again) about celebrity and the difference between knowing someone as a public figure versus having some kind of personal exchange. I'm glad that I didn't accost Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, or Hugh Jackman when they were in our house even though part of me longs to bond with artists that I admire. But isn't that better done by enjoying their work rather than in some awkward encounter?
We attended my brother-in-law’s solo show last night at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood. I never feel qualified to discuss Jeff’s music but his from-the-gut performance was extraordinary—insightful, heartfelt, and extremely moving. I thought about how much he gives of himself in those moments and realized that on many levels I learn so much more about what makes him tick when I see him on a stage than I do having a conversation with him over breakfast. Some of the diehard fans travel from city to city to see Jeff perform and I’m sure they enjoy the personal contact they often have with Jeff after the show. But I hope they also recognize that what they are getting when Jeff is on stage is just as “real” and intimate (more so?) as those brief meet n'greets outside the dressing room or in front of the tour bus.
You could hear a pin drop during many parts of the show last night. What a powerful dynamic is created when a group of people gather with a common purpose. Glen Kotche, the brilliant Wilco drummer, opened for Jeff and then played with him at the end of the show. Apart from their musical talents, it’s a pleasure to watch the two of them together because of how much they clearly enjoy each other as musicians and as people. Jeff joked about their rapport, wondering whether people were getting sick of their mutual admiration society. But the fans love it—there’s never anything boring about artists who respect each other and help each other reach new heights.
As great as Jeff and Glen were, my favorite part of the show was when my ten-year-old nephew Spencer got up on stage and played the drums while Jeff sang “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” Spencer is so damn good on those drums and getting better every day. I tried to snap a photo but it barely came out so I’m also posting a photo of the two of them performing a song for me and Kendall at our wedding. That was so much more meaningful than anything Jeff could have said to us personally about our getting married.
Six-year-old Sammy spent the entire show sleeping on the floor at our feet but Jeff told the crowd one of Sam's brilliant jokes. Excuse my stage directions but it's so deep I want to make sure that I don't ruin it:
[Excited voice] Hey, look! A losers' contest!
[Dejected voice] Oh...I won.
Jeff also told the crowd the last words Sammy told him as he was going to bed the night before. Half asleep, he said, "Dad, you know what you should call your next CD?" "What, Sam?" Jeff asked. Sammy paused for dramatic effect before responding. "The Nazi Website." OY. All of us are trying to figure that one out but I'm taking partial credit. Three days in my presence and even six-year-olds have Nazis on the brain. (Will someone please call Children's Social Services?)
I was sitting next to Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener at the show but let me tell you what an idiot I am. When we got to our seats I saw that there were two blocked off in our row for C. Keener. I assumed they were probably for Catherine Keener since I’d heard she was a fan but someone else was sitting there. When I took my seat, the woman next to me kept asking if it was okay for her to sit there or did she need to move to make more room for our family. No, stay right there, I said, marveling at how much the woman looked like Catherine Keener. For some reason, since she wasn’t sitting in the C. Keener seats and was acting so deferentially, it didn’t occur to me that the Keener clone was the actress until after the show when she was talking to Jeff. Was that God’s way of protecting me from making a fool of myself? Wasn’t it better that I interacted with her during the show as “regular person” instead of tensing up and blurting out an ill-timed “Oh, Miss Keener, I so enjoyed your performance in Capote!” or “Hey, Cathy, good luck at the Oscars next month! You rock!” I think of the Retropolitan’s recent post called “The Case for Not Letting Me Talk to Celebrities” and I can so relate to that. I’d hate to think that had I been fully aware that I was talking to Catherine Keener I would've acted differently but I’m sorry to say that I probably would have especially since my sister and I were both wondering who she was and why she had an all-access pass so we were probably giving her weird vibes. I have always been a huge fan of Keener’s work and I can usually recognize any actor within a 10-mile radius so I have to ask myself whether my disconnect occurred because she was being so nice to me. Am I so neurotic that I can’t believe a real celebrity would ever give me the time of day? Jeff joked that as much as he enjoys spotting celebrities when he’s in L.A. (he was very excited yesterday to run into Peter Bonerz, Jerry the Dentist from old “Bob Newhart Show”), as soon as a celebrity attends one of his shows he loses all respect for them (“They’re dead to me!”). He was kidding, of course, but I understood exactly what he was saying. We know a fair number of recognizable folks but once they’re friends the mystique is gone (thank God) and it’s hard to remember that they’re famous. After the show my sister and I tortured ourselves about whether we were “nice enough” to Catherine Keener. Oy.
Jeff told us a story the other day about his Saturday night gig in San Diego where he had to stop the show and ask someone to quiet down. Unlike Wilco shows, his solo gigs are pretty quiet affairs so when people talk loud during the songs it is very noticeable and distracting. When the incident was discussed on the Wilco chat boards, as these things often are, people said that they actually couldn’t hear the woman talking—that she must have been in an “acoustic sweet spot” that projected straight up to the stage. I had never heard that term but I love it—all night long, whenever my sister and I were whispering anything to each other about people in the theatre, be it Jeff, James Spader, or my mystery date Catherine Keener, we panicked that our voices were being projected all around us in a series of acoustic sweet spots. Now I’m thinking that my blog is like one giant acoustic sweet spot with my private and often embarrassing ramblings projected to specific parts of the room. I’m always shocked when people refer to something I’ve written in here. “How do you know that?” I ask incredulously, even though I remember writing about what they’ve mentioned.
My sister’s friend Fred Armisen, who used to work with her at her Chicago club Lounge Ax and is now on “Saturday Night Live,” came over to say hello during the show but it must have also been an act of God that kept me from meeting his girlfriend Martha Plimpton who was there with him. I am such a huge fan of Plimpton’s that I know I would have blathered on like a lunatic and made her inch back in fear, eyes darting as they tried to spot the nearest exit sign. Kendall and I saw Plimpton in her wonderful cabaret act with Julian Fleisher last year and thought she was extraordinary. Fred (usually as his character Fericito) has appeared on stage with Jeff lots of times (including in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart) so I kept fantasizing during the show that he’d go up there and bring Martha with him to sing a few numbers with Jeff. I wish Plimpton made more films. What is it about her acting style that I find so incredibly genuine, whether it’s her performances in The Mosquito Coast, Running on Empty, and Parenthood or her later work in films like I Shot Andy Warhol (with music by Wilco), Pecker, or 200 Cigarettes? You also need to hear what she has to say in the documentary about women working in Hollywood called Searching for Debra Winger. She’s a member of Chicago’s great Steppenwolf Theatre and will open on Broadway in April in Colin McPherson’s “Shining City” which I want to see. As I said when I was boarding a plane with her uncle David Carradine a year ago, I would go out of my way to see anything Martha Plimpton was appearing in. Oy, I’m fawning again—see what happens? I can’t be trusted around famous people unless I know them and have seen their warts.
We’re about to leave for Jeff’s second show tonight. Yikes, more celebrities to seek out and avoid. In an L.A. Times interview this week, Jeff summed up what is so great about the dynamic that occurs when people listen to good music:
“All the best parts of people coming together can be found in music — rock concerts, and the experience of listening to records with your friends, and becoming more human by being reminded of your feelings through a great record. I believe in all of that stuff.”