In the summer of 1986 I drove a rusty brown 1975 Ford Pinto all over northern Indiana delivering papers and small packages for a courier service (owned by my aunt, thank you nepotism). This car came complete with manual steering, manual brakes, and an AM radio with a single speaker mid-dash. The South Bend AM radio dial offered me news, religion, polkas, and old-fogey music, but at least WLS in Chicago, which was still playing rock and top 40, came in acceptably. So that summer WLS was my driving companion. Fred Winston did the morning show, Don Wade and his wife Roma held down middays, and Larry Lujack and Rich McMillan came on in the afternoon. They were all talented and entertaining jocks and soon I listened more for them than for the music. I can’t remember which of them had the semi-regular call-in feature called Brush with Greatness, in which listeners were invited to call and tell stories of times they encountered famous people. A remarkable number of those stories were funny or touching.
For a guy who has always lived in places famous people studiously avoid (despite Steve Martin’s famous trips to Terre Haute), I’ve met a few actors and musicians. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which of my stories are entertaining enough for Brush with Greatness on WLS.
I admit that this first story is a stretch, but it’s my blog and I want to tell it. My parents have played canasta with their best friends every Saturday night since 1966. Somehow, Mr. Porter knew Tony Randall, whom you know as Felix Unger on the sitcom The Odd Couple. One Saturday night sometime in the late 70s, dragged along to the Porters’ for another night of watching TV until my parents quit playing cards, the air was electric because Mr. Randall was expected to call sometime that evening. And he did call. While Mr. Porter and Mr. Randall talked, I sat in wonder that this man I watched in reruns was alive at his telephone. Did he stand at the wall phone in his kitchen like Mr. Porter, I wondered, or perhaps did he sit in a cordovan leather wing chair in a book-lined study with a half-consumed glass of tawny port next to his black desk phone on an oval walnut end table with red oak inlay? Mr. Porter seemed a little taller to me for a while after that call.
Here’s a much better story. In the summer of 1985, I met a bunch of friends from all corners of Indiana on Long Beach near Michigan City for a weekend of beaching and catching up with each other. All of us being 17 or 18, we thought nothing of cramming ourselves into a little Nissan Sentra hatchback for a drive. One was in the way back trying not to crack her head on the hatch glass, four or five were crammed into the back seat, I was in the front seat with a lovely girl on my lap (Indiana had not yet passed its mandatory seat-belt law), and of course somebody drove. Our windows were down as we cruised, and we enjoyed the warm summer air. At a light, a dark-colored BMW sedan with tinted windows pulled up alongside us on our left. We all oohed and aahed over the shiny Bimmer when the front passenger window went down. A man leaned across the seat and asked us for directions to a movie theater. He looked familiar, and his voice was distinctive, but it wasn’t until our driver asked in disbelief, “Are you Jim Belushi?” that it clicked. He said yes and immediately asked again for directions. The girl in my lap lived in the area and shouted the directions as the light changed and the rest of us in the car went nuts. I remember a towheaded little boy popped into view in the passenger seat and looked around as we all drove off, directions still being given. We were going pretty fast by the time Jim thanked us, rolled up his window, and zoomed away from us. I still don’t know what the heck Jim Belushi was doing in Michigan City. Somebody said his family owned property on Long Beach.
I didn’t exatly meet Richard Carpenter, but I got a letter from him. I’ve always been a giant Carpenters fan, and in 1986 I boldly wrote a gushing letter to the Carpenters Fan Club telling them how much I had enjoyed the Carpenters’ music. A couple months later, a letter came for me in an envelope with the A&M Records logo on it. It contained a brief letter from Richard on A&M Records stationery saying that my letter touched him. His long signature looked like a convention of ovals at the bottom. I have to believe it was a form letter handed to Richard for signature, but I was thrilled anyway. Sadly, I can’t find that letter now.
In college, my friend Michael was music director for the campus radio station. He worked the record labels to get free records and CDs for the station, and the reps sometimes invited him to concerts to encourage him to put their artists into rotation. In about 1987 he got invited to a heavy-metal triple bill — Grim Reaper, power-metal pioneers Helloween, and some other band I can’t remember — up in Chicago, and asked me along. I’m sure you don’t know these bands, but in our world they were pretty much major stars. I liked Grim Reaper all right and I was hot into Helloween, so I was pretty excited. Sweetening the deal, Michael got invited to interview the founder of Grim Reaper, a guitarist named Nick Bowcott. We drove up from Terre Haute in his old Buick, a $750 car stuffed with $1,500 of audio equipment. We rocked powerfully and distortion-free all the way to some bar called the Blue Wail, only to find that the show had been moved to some other bar in some other part of town. I thought we were sunk, but Michael was not daunted. He followed some sketchy directions, threading his leviathan automobile through narrow streets in seedy parts of town, and we made the show just in time. It rocked. Afterwards, we were escorted to the tour bus where Nick awaited. The whole band was on board, along with a stream of girls right around the age of consent with faces full of makeup, bodies not very full of clothes, and eyes full of hope and desire that they would be special that night. Band members seemed at once interested, wary, and uncomfortable with their attention — except the lead singer, who just seemed interested. Most of the girls were shooed off, Nick sat down before us, Michael pressed the Record button on his little tape recorder, and the interview began. Nick was bright, energetic, passionate, and engaged. He answered Michael’s questions thoughtfully and thoroughly, talking freely about the band, making albums, succeeding in the recording industry, and even the existence of God (which he doubted). He looked deeply and intensely into our eyes as he spoke. I wondered if he knew we were two 20-year-old kids from a 160-watt radio station that covered maybe a two-mile radius (half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm) on the eastern edge of Terre Haute, Indiana, but he treated us like we were from Rolling Stone. He gave us his sole attention as long as Michael had questions. Nick Bowcott was a class act.
Finally, I got to see one of my favorite bands, Heart, play last year at the Morris Performing Arts Center, a fine old theater in South Bend. I hadn’t seen them play in 12 or 13 years so I was plenty happy, but I was excited when I won a contest to briefly meet Ann and Nancy Wilson backstage before the show. I was told to wait in a designated spot in the lobby after the opening act. A few other winners came and waited, too. They all brought items for autograph, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that. The handler came and said that it would be a few minutes, that our meeting would be very brief, and that we could have them sign only one item each. A friendly woman with a bright smile asked me if I would mind having Ann and Nancy sign an item she brought, since she had brought two, and I said “Sure.” The handler returned and took us backstage. He explained that we would do this in receiving-line style so we wouldn’t overwhelm Ann and Nancy, and that we simply had to wait our turn or we would be escorted out. The handler told me that fans had done some upsetting and frightening things at these meet-and-greets in the past; a couple weeks before, a fan placed his hand around Ann’s throat, which shook her up. I could see that this would be different from my Nick Bowcott experience. When Ann and Nancy came out, flanked by crew, they stayed shoulder to shoulder with each other and looked to make sure they were surrounded by people they knew. As we advanced in turn, they dutifully signed the items we brought but didn’t say anything. When my turn came, there was some confusion as the opening act came to meet Ann and Nancy too. I was standing in front of Ann, but she didn’t know whether to look at me or the man who was the opening act. I was confused, too, and before I was sure whose turn it really was I told her how much pleasure her music had brought me. She kept bobbing her head trying to figure out where to look. Shortly it registered what I had said, and she said with surprise in a throaty voice, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She signed what I had in my hands and looked to the person in line behind me, so I took the hint and moved over in front of Nancy. She just took my item and began to sign it without looking up. I wasn’t sure what to say now, given that things had been so confused with Ann, so I just tried to catch her eyes. She finally noticed and looked at me. Her eyes were as blue as a spring sky, startling and lovely — but her pupils were the size of sharp pencil points. Those tiny dots fairly roared that there would be no friendly chitchat. I mumbled that it was a pleasure to meet her, and then stepped toward the handler and waited until everybody had their turn. After the handler took a photo of us all, we were escorted back to the lobby. I’m sure Ann and Nancy are normally friendly, but I can imagine they are wary because of past bad experiences with fans, and I can imagine that they found it hard to get into a meet-and-greet ten minutes before they were to go onstage. I cut them a lot of slack and I’m glad for the opportunity to meet them, but still, I wish it could have been a little more personal. Here’s a photo of my head next to Ann and Nancy’s heads from the group photo. The forehead between us belongs to the woman with the bright smile.
Why didn’t I think to get a photo with Nick Bowcott?
Have you had any brushes with greatness?