I’m Gonna Be *Almost* Famous
Hippiesandhipsters turns 10 next year! But none of this would have started if it wasn’t for the movie Almost Famous, which turns 20 this month. I’ve been rewriting this essay a few times a year for the last several (it all started with this 2012 blog post) and wanted to give it a home on my home.
My favorite scene in Almost Famous has been the same since I first saw it when I was in eighth grade. It comes towards the end, setting off the third act. The main character William Miller finally confronts the woman he’s been secretly falling in love with, Penny Lane. They’re both on the road with fictional band, Stillwater: William as a journalist for Rolling Stone and Penny in a group of band aids. Penny is Their Biggest Fan. She falls in love with Russell, Stillwater’s guitarist, and his ex-wife and current girlfriend is in the next city stop on the tour.
Penny asks William to find out if Russell wants her there.
“Wake up!” William yells. “Don’t go to New York.”
Penny tries to explain, “You should be happy for me. You don’t know what he says to me in private. Maybe it is love. As much as it can be, for somebody…” and William finishes her sentence:
“…somebody who sold you to Humble Pie for fifty bucks and a case of beer? I was there,” he says. “I was there.”
In the previous scene we watch the deal go down at the road managers’ poker game in a Boston hotel room.
As he repeats it, “I was there,” the camera stays on Penny. She slowly turns to him and tears blot down her cheeks. She flicks them away.
I felt drawn to this scene because it made me uncomfortable. I was 13 and William and Penny’s conflict quickly became mine.
Almost Famous is based on writer-director Cameron Crowe’s adventures as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone when he was on the road with Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers Band. Crowe brought those experiences to life with his Oscar-winning screenplay. In the 20 years since it’s release, this month, leagues of music journalists, writers, and fans have taken the story under their wing as their own (including my hero, Amanda Petrusich). It’s what inspired so many to sit behind the keyboard, and typewriter, and write along to an album.
Some of us saw Almost Famous and realized that life could be propelled by music. It is what takes William Miller from San Diego to New York City (with many stops along the way) in search of a story reliant on an interview with Stillwater’s lead guitarist.
The opening credits are written out by hand on a yellow legal pad. And then it happens again: William sitting in his room writing on a Smith Corona Galaxis Deluxe typewriter. Then it happens again: he’s in a hotel bathroom in the bathtub taking notes, he’s backstage writing and Penny grabs the pen out of his hand. At a house party, a curled post-it note covers his palm and he jots into it. Over and over, William writes on screen. I was captivated watching his hands flutter and crumple papers to start again. And it’s all because of music.
Music pushes everything forward in Almost Famous. Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends encourages William’s older sister to leave home and become a stewardess. She leaves him her records. (“Look under your bed. It will set you free.”) William runs his hands over them, petting the cardboard sleeves. I wanted to reach out and touch music, too. He opens The Who’s Tommy and out falls a note on lined paper, “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning, and you’ll see your entire future.” His hands place the needle on the wax and his eyes bulge. As the frame fades out and back in, it’s suddenly 1973 and William is in high school.
On the school’s campus he flips through Creem Magazine and we follow the voice of rock critic Lester Bangs to a store front window. William watches Bangs give a radio interview from behind the glass and approaches him on the street afterwards. It cuts to the two of them at a diner. Lester warns him that writing about rock music is becoming an “industry of cool.” He gives William an assignment to write a thousand words on Black Sabbath, which takes William to a concert, where he meets Penny Lane, the band aids, and Stillwater. Music is the vehicle for the story. They are one in the same.
Rolling Stone finds William’s writing in a local paper and they send him on assignment with Stillwater. No one knows William is 15 but us, Penny, and his mother. He keeps getting pulled further and further into the tour as Russell withholds the key interview postponing it every day.
William becomes a part of something bigger than himself on the tour. He watches the machine from backstage as Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” plays. We watch the band write songs on the bus to the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out.” Through the empty fields, Zeppelin’s quiet, acoustic “That’s The Way” hums as the country rolls by. William rubs up against fame in hotel lobbies as Bowie sings “I’m Waiting For The Man.” He finds loneliness and exhaustion to Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air.”
The more he sees the more the band grows suspicious of him. They call William “the enemy,” a journalist who can reveal their truth because he’s always there. (Crowe used the word “journalist” and not “reporter” or “writer” and I still love that.) I wanted to be that, to be, as Russell tells him, “the one guy you’re not supposed to tell your secrets to.”
Penny Lane does go to New York. She finds the band and company at Max’s Kansas City and makes eyes at all of them from across the room. When Russell’s girlfriend notices, “who’s that girl with?” They all answer, “she’s with me.” The band manager goes to Penny, but her eyes stay on Russell. She runs out and William is the only one who follows. Elton John’s “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters” plays as he peers in taxicab windows down Park Avenue looking for her. (Jann Wenner appears as a walk-on, reading a paper in a cab William glances into.)
Back in San Diego, his mother sits alone at his high school graduation and William’s name is announced, noted as “not present.” She claps hard. The scene of students passing by on stage cuts in and out between William in a room at The Plaza in New York City with Penny Lane. She took all the quaaludes someone left behind. “I’m no good at goodbyes,” she tells him. William is the only one there to call the doctor to pump her stomach. His purpose becomes greater than writing Stillwater’s cover story for Rolling Stone. He saves her life.
As Almost Famous turns 20 this year I will finally say out loud what I’ve always wanted to say: I Want To Be Almost Famous. William Miller was my hero. I wasn’t drawn to the sex or drugs in the story but the writing and the rock and roll. When I first saw him writing on screen about music I knew it was a path I could take. But now 20 years later the real truth I need to say out loud is that I failed. I’m not Almost Famous. I failed long ago. I didn’t grow up to be a rock journalist. I grew up to be a writer. And whenever I get lonely, I follow Penny Lane’s advice: I go to the record store and visit my friends.
When I was 13, Almost Famous taught me that music can shape your life and that it’s possible to make sense of life through music. It offered me a world of unpredictability, a first blush at the words “blow job,” and people who followed music around no matter where it went, no matter what it demanded.
I quickly adapted my tastes and curiosity to William’s: doodling band names in my notebook, seeking out Creem’s backpages, and taking most of my dad’s vinyl and never returning it. I fell in love with the characters, their clothes, their lifestyle, their attitude. I listened to the soundtrack and followed those songs onto the records where they appear. Most importantly, I found Led Zeppelin. I made a special trip to Tower Records and found Led Zeppelin III, the album “That’s The Way” is on and I’ve never stopped listening to it.
Ever since Almost Famous music has been the entry point to everything in my life from conversations and stories to jobs and friendship. It taught me history through hit songs, historical music journalism I sought out (Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis, Lisa Robinson), and the records I started spending my afternoons with. I’d come home from school each day and find a different album dad had put on my desk: Are You Experienced?, The Mamas and the Papas’ Greatest Hits, Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story. I’d lay around my bedroom listening to doo-wop show on Philly’s local oldies station. I started writing about music because I wanted to know what it felt like. How do you turn a song into a story? How do you describe a sound?
When he doesn’t like what he wrote, Russell betrays William and tells Rolling Stone he’s a liar. They believe the rock star. William’s youth and inexperience doesn’t help. When Russell calls Penny to make up, weeks after William saves her life, she sends him to William’s house in an attempt to right a wrong. When William’s mother answers the door, Russell realizes where he is. It’s in his own bedroom that William finally gets to interview The Great Russell Hammond.
“So Russell,” William asks. “What do you love about music?”
His question became my answer. It told me what to ask and what to look for in people, in songs, in stories: what do you love about music? And then I took it a step further. Why don’t you like this sound? became my calling card. I found my entry point and started hacking away at a path.
I memorized and underlined Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time issue in high school, made top ten lists, and debated them endlessly with anyone who would humor me. (Find my updated opinion on Wenner here.) I wrote my college entrance essay on Led Zeppelin II because it was the only thing I was passionate about. I wasn’t interested in playing an instrument and studying performance in college, but wanted to learn music history. I declared audio production as my major’s concentration and devoted four years of college to radio. At the station I made friends from different regions with different tastes in music that told me stories–punk in the Midwest, stoner rock from California, and folk from Western Massachusetts. We always needed something to talk about in meetings and on air, and it was always music. Every day it asked me: what do I have to say?
I became a jazz DJ and discovered Charlie Parker and Medeski Martin and Wood. It led me toward ska, soul, funk, and jam. Sophomore year I wrote history papers to Phish and The Derek Trucks Band because it was something I could hear but ignore. When I became music director I made myself learn twenty years of the indie I had ignored as a teen for The Beatles, The Clash, and The Who, and found Belle & Sebastian, The Black Keys, and fell in love with Wilco and Aimee Mann. Senior year I took Hip-Hop Cultures and was taught race theory through music history. I gulped down the catalogs of Fela Kuti and Ray Charles and discovered Mos Def, Wu-Tang, Nas, and Lauryn Hill. Along the way I stumbled upon Neil Young, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, and the faces of Dylan.
I inherited a senior’s show, Rockumentary, when they graduated and built thematic playlists: Pre-Beatle Americana, songs with women’s names in the title–“Who’s That Girl?”–I did a set of all live shows, and two hours dedicated to 1967: The Summer of Love.
After four years the records changed and my music friends went off to different cities and their FMs. I landed a job in corporate radio in a city where, coincidentally, three friends found work too. After a year of working knee deep in libraries of music–hair metal, new rock, spa jazz, modern country–my friends eventually went back to school or moved abroad. The more music I found, arranged, and listened to, the more I found myself alone. I started writing about music online (right here! at hippiesandhipsters!) , having conversations with myself about what mattered and what didn’t. I found a way to talk about music endlessly and had experience to back it up: “What do you love about music?”
But that didn’t mean anyone was listening. I left radio to follow my writing into graduate school and found companionship in strangers who told me their stories for feedback in return. I discovered music writing could be anything I wanted it to be. After graduation everyone moved on so I kept spinning my records and writing online. Whenever I got lonely, I found the closest record store.
When William shows up at the Rolling Stone offices in San Francisco and they discover he’s just a kid, they give him the night to write. He calls Lester Bangs for advice (“Call me. I stay up late.”) while facing a blank page. Lester repeats what he told William when they first met that day in the diner. “If you want to be a true friend, be honest and …unmerciful.”
The floodgate of the Internet expanded the world of music journalism and criticism in a way William Miller or Lester Bangs (or Crowe) never could have foreseen. I told myself, and my readers, I was “contributing to the conversation” and “being a part of something bigger than myself.” I took Lester’s advice as if he was giving it to me and wrote screeds and odes but never worked hard enough to chase a story or write it any other way than how I wanted. I thought my opinion was important because I had one.
I kept writing and never stuck to any format, went on and on, and hardly edited myself finding joy in the instant publish button. I wrote briefly for small websites run by folks who found me and told me they liked my writing, but they whittled my voice to a nub. I thought of the advice Lester gives William: “Beware of Rolling Stone magazine. They will change your story, rewrite it, turn it into swill.”
When I wrote for other people I wasn’t writing what I wanted. It didn’t feel like I was being honest with the reader or with myself. So here I am ten years later, still writing about music online for free. I’m proud of where I landed: at the independent site, Albumism, run by a dad in his Brooklyn apartment. I receive feedback and have made changes to a few pieces but found an editor who celebrates me. I want the reader to explore the way music conjures memory and its visceral landscape. I write for people who would also do anything to reach out and touch sound. I write about how the collective unconscious of a certain song can deliver an undiscovered realm of imagination.
For every music writer I’ve met, and from the journalists I follow closely, I’ve heard and read their admiration for Almost Famous and how it inspired them to sit at the typewriter and write to records too. Twenty years of Almost Famous taught me I am not the only one. I am not special. But the way the music of Almost Famous laid its hands on me has always made me feel so uniquely my own.
I remember the moment it happened. I was 15 and laying on my bedroom floor between the stereo speakers, Zeppelin spinning on my turntable. With the volume turned as loud as it could go, it was during the bridge on “That’s The Way.” The acoustic guitar winds backwards and I cracked open and started to sizzle right there.
My stereo is still the center of my living room. I have the same turntable dad bought me in 10th grade. I still have his Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan records and his duster in the original box. After 20 years of Almost Famous so many friends have come and gone. It’s the records that stayed. I still write, but I’m no journalist. I’m just a writer and perhaps, even what Rolling Stone accused William of being: just a fan.
When I’m feeling lost or lonely, or when I’m sick at home, I turn to Almost Famous. I watch the band aid Sapphire show up with Black Sabbath and leave with another band for London. William’s sister, Anita, returns and discovers it’s OK to go home again. I watch Stillwater confess their sins and secrets to each other as their plane is about to go down. But most importantly, I watch William write. And I remember that is what I am here to do. So I turn to the records that started it for me, and as they spin I try to make sense of it all.
“Friendship is the booze they feed you,” Lester tells William. “They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.”
I’ve never belonged to the music writing community. I watch from afar, chime in on Twitter, read the How To Pitch posts, pitch once a year, get rejected, and rarely try again. I kept writing but failed at becoming Almost Famous. I never followed William on the road and into magazines but I kept my ass in the chair, fingers on the keys, and am still figuring out how sounds can fit into sentences.
But after twenty years of Almost Famous I wonder, did I take Lester’s advice too seriously? Was I too honest? Did I burn bridges before I had the time to build them? I wanted to join the pack so badly, to be read, but refused to compromise my writing. Have I been a solo artist all along?
Popular culture and art invites people to have an opinion. What does it reflect? What does it reveal? Almost Famous revealed a world propelled by words and music. So I created a life by arranging words on the page from songs in my head. It empowered me. I discovered myself even if it led to a sort of failure. But perhaps it’s not failure I found, just another, unexpected path. I did carve one after all. I am a writer. But am I more of a fan? William’s end was unexpected. Will mine be too?
One piece of art can change the world because Almost Famous changed the course of my life. It might just be a movie to you but it’s my spark. The characters are my friends and whenever I hear “Tiny Dancer,” I’m right there on the tour bus with Stillwater and the Band Aids singing along. I remember Lester’s words, beware the “industry of cool.” I lust after their fur-lined jackets, and I know what comes after the credits roll: punk, arena rock, new wave.
I’ve never managed to care about anything else as much as music. The older I get the less I’m Almost Famous. Maybe I’ve just never worked hard enough. But twenty years later the story still belongs to me even if I failed. If the meaning of life is to be a part of something bigger than yourself then I guess I found my meaning. I just hope my purpose becomes greater one day, like William’s did. Maybe there’s still time.