On September 4th, 1999 I was standing in the parking lot of Jones Beach Amphitheater with my – until then – Internet friend Bex Schwartz, and a girl was on her knees begging for my after-show pass while her boyfriend smoked and looked on, embarrassed.
Bex and I had picked up our after show passes from R.E.M,’s go-to guy Kevin O'Neil just prior. They were as guests of Ken Stringfellow, who I had met the year prior at R.E.M.’s taping of “Party of Five.”
Twenty minutes later Bex and I were at soundcheck, watching R.E.M. run through about five songs. Midway through there was a stir as someone walked in and sat down five rows behind us. Michael Stipe, on stage smiled and waved. I turned around and it was Patti Smith.
When I was 16, I went through a phase of hating everything. Those who know me well will say that this is as regular a phase as the seasons. During this one particular instance I took to sleeping from 3:00PM to 11:00PM, then staying up the whole night. Mostly to avoid talking to my parents and sister. During this time I also found an FTP drop with music on it, including all of the punk records from the 70’s that at this point were hard to find in stores. At night the phone line was free and rates cheap.
I got into late 70’s punk in a big way, and this also corresponded to Patti Smith’s reemergence into public. I saw her play the Wiltern in 1996 (and met Stipe for the first time), and basically idolized her. She was now sitting a dozen feet behind me.
R.E.M. played a great show that night. Patti joined them for E-Bow the Letter. After the show, if you have a pass, you typically line up by the backstage entrance to get into the after-show party. Bex and I waited there, spotting celebrities in the crowd. While waiting, I saw R.E.M.’s manager Bertis Downs come out and walked up to me and asked, “Ethan Kaplan?”
I answered, “Yes.”
“Michael wants to meet you, come with me.”
Bex waved as I left. I passed Ken Stringfellow on the way through the tunnel backstage as he went to get her.
At this point I had never been backstage at a show.
The light was dim, pleasant. Red. Jones Beach is on the ocean and some fog was above. It smelled like the sea. For the show, a lot of family had come out and while I didn’t recognize any, I could tell they were parents and siblings of band-members. Some catering was out, some wine bottles uncorked. It was distinctly unglamorous. More after-high-school-play cast party than anything decadent.
Bertis introduced me to Michael.
“Michael this is Ethan, from that website.”
“Nice to see you. Ethan this is Patti. Patti this is Ethan, he’s a friend of the band.”
The next year I watched Almost Famous and cried. A year later Michael told me he didn’t like it, it but understood why I loved it.
“It’s kind of you. It’s not representative of the best of the world I’m in.”
Ten years later my taxi pulled up to the Kabuki Hotel in San Francisco for SF Music Tech. I had just flown in from New York City, and had plans to see Patti Smith that night at the Warfield. I got out of the cab and made my way to the entrance and Patti Smith was there in a shabby overcoat and a ski hat. We had met a few times in the last ten years at various functions.
I know she is very near-sighted so I moved closer and said, “Hi Patti, hope your show goes well tonight. I’ll be there with my wife.”
She squinted, and looked at me before smiling.
“Ah, Michael’s friend. I’ll see you there. Where can I get breakfast around here? And what is going on in this hotel right now?”
Me and Patti Smith, after R.E.M.’s last ever performance as a band, for one song. New York City, March 11, 2009
A few weeks ago I was at the same hotel talking with another musical hero of mine, Dave Allen from Gang of Four. He, as am I, is a regular of music conference panels. This time he was in the audience of a panel I was on. We had formerly shared the stage at SXSW (at a panel).
After, he and I got talking: about music, family, mutual friends and the state of the weird world we both worked in.
He told me he had breakfast with Patti that morning a few years back.
He also told me the story of how most of “Entertainment!” was recorded live in studio.
My good friend and co-conspirator Eric Garland says, “It’s the stories you tell.”
I tell a lot of them. The years between 1999 and now are a blur, and full of a lot of bad memories but mostly a lot of good. I’m very fortunate for the things I was there for, the positions I was in. I’m fortunate for the stories I’ve heard, but I find myself missing the stories not told anymore. We’ve come to a place where the present defines the near and far past, and the room for nostalgia becomes a luxury. Legends are commodity, the past is homogenized into affected persona (ie, the hipster).
Is there room for misty-eyed nostalgia in a world with cars that drive themselves down the 280?
When information becomes rapid streams, we lose the ability to decenter the narrative in order to get to the root of what caused the present to exist. The past remains defined by present definition, not by any examination of the layers which informed it. We take the whole onion at face value.
But the histories remain fascinating, especially in art. I love the deconstruction of the traces that flow through the narratives. How Peter met Michael, why Michael decided to sing in the first place. How technology drove Francis Picabia so nuts that he went from painting landscapes to spark plugs. The relationship between Fear of Music and Dadaism. How the members of the National all lost their jobs in the dot-com bust in the early 00’s.
How Ethan met Michael, then Mike. How Mike introduced Ethan to Kell, who set Ethan up on a date with her friend Amy.
How my life really began at that moment.
Amy a month after we met, 2002.
The stories you tell matter more than the story you lived. It’s through the act of narrative that we make what happened meaningful, and through that meaning that the past remains alive.