How to behave with a backstage pass


Friends, I have amazing self-control – seriously, I am one cool customer.

See, last weekend, I could have easily displayed to the world the drooling idiot that, deep inside, I know myself to be. I could have disgraced my family’s good name with outbursts of unbecoming geeky enthusiasm and excitement. I could have grinned and pointed and blurted out inane blatherings that would have made me socially radioactive to anyone within 50 feet of me.

But I didn’t do that. I showed poise and sophistication. Not only did I not act like I’d just fallen off the turnip truck, I acted like I’d never even laid eyes on a turnip. In fact, if I’d fallen off any truck, it was the cool cucumber truck.

Am I proud of myself? You’re darn right I am. I mean, what would you do if you were sitting on a couch only to look up and see Emmylou Harris sitting five feet from the end of your nose? What would you do if Joan Baez suddenly materialized beside you with that dazzling smile and those famous apple cheeks? What would you do if Elvis Costello asked you if he could cut in line for the bathroom?

This is the kind of thing that happens when you get yourself a backstage pass to the insanely fabulous Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. My friends at KPIG asked me to come along to Hardly Strictly to help introduce the acts on stage and, well, science doesn’t have an instrument fast enough to measure the time I spent thinking about it before saying yes.

And that is how I came by the experience of stepping up to a live microphone before an ocean of somewhere between, I don’t know, 20,000 and 20 million weekend revelers – people literally as far as I could see – while performers I had adored, a few of them for decades, stood a few feet behind waiting for me to call their names. It was how I came to announce to the throngs, just moments after the Giants across town had won the last game of their season securing them the West Division title, in a booming voice I had no time to practice, “Your Giants are the champions of the West!” Thus, setting off a roar that would have brought tears of nostalgia to Mussolini.

What I wanted to do in those situations was to tear out my hair, rip off my shirt, dance in a circle like a deranged leprechaun, then fall to my knees and weep in gratitude to a benevolent God that plucked me out of the vast millions to do this particular thing at this particular time. Because that’s what I felt like inside. But I didn’t do any of those things. I behaved with perfect professional detachment, as if I had done this kind of thing every Monday, Wednesday and Friday of my life. My soul was playing in the fields of ecstatic, in-the-moment experience, yet my body was acting like I was standing in line buying shampoo at Costco.

If you’re a music fan and you’re not familiar with Hardly Strictly, my heart breaks for you. It may be the single coolest thing about living in the Bay Area, provided you’re not employed by Apple, Google or Pixar. It’s a two-day orgy of great folk and Americana music featuring performances from just about everyone in the field short of Woody Guthrie. It’s free too, a gift from a music-loving billionaire named Warren Hellman whose birthday, by the way, is July 25. Just in case, you want to get him a little something.

As part of the elite with backstage passes, I was also allowed to attend a Saturday night party at the San Francisco nightclub Slim’s which was chock full of famous and semi-famous musicians, milling about, enjoying each other’s general fabulousness.

Thanks to my friend Sleepy John Sandidge, I sat beside the great singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen for close to two hours, jawboning about nothing in particular. It’s not a shock that the guy who “The Road Goes On Forever” is an incredibly funny and sharp-tongued storyteller. But it was a big shock that he was wasting his charm on an insignificant speck of nothing like me. In fact, I can’t be sure that Sleepy John didn’t pay him for entertaining me, as if the whole party was some kind of Make A Wish Foundation show for my benefit and I hadn’t yet received my diagnosis of brain cancer.

For a week now, I’ve been a fount of obnoxious name dropping. But I beg forgiveness. I’m still a bit woozy from that fall off the turnip truck, and who wouldn’t indulge in such a thing after what I experienced?

Backstage, if you’re not one of the famous faces or with their various bands, you’re pretty much invisible. You can drift through the crowd like a ghost, eavesdropping on Steve Earle complaining about the aggressive possums at his house, or getting close enough to Emmylou to reach out and touch that iconic silver hair of hers.

But I didn’t nothing to embarrass myself or anyone else. On Sunday morning, my teenaged daughter told me that my mission for the day was to somehow lay a hand on Elvis Costello. I scoffed. Even if such an opportunity presented itself, I told her, I would sooner light my hair on fire than to indulge in such tacky fan behavior.

But then a few hours later, there I was, waiting for a free stall at the portable toilets when Elvis himself appeared, gesturing to the stage, asking if he could cut in line, given that he was scheduled to go on in a few moments.

“Of course, Elvis,” I said, “be my guest.” I didn’t sputter, or fall to my knees, or act like a buffoon. But I did allow my left hand to rise up and lightly touch his right elbow.

What can I say? Sometimes, I’m weak.


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