I’ve told this story twice before, but the last time was seven years ago and chances are you weren’t among my readers yet.
In the summer of 1986 I drove a rusty brown Ford Pinto all over northern Indiana delivering small packages for my aunt Betty’s courier service. Thank you nepotism! The Pinto was basic transportation; its only creature comfort was an AM radio, which I left tuned to WLS from Chicago. WLS still played top-40 music then. 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 such fun to listen to! I can’t remember which of them had the call-in feature called Brush with Greatness, in which listeners were invited to call and tell stories of times they encountered famous people. Listeners’ stories seldom failed to be 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 encountered a surprising number people of talent and notoriety. These, then, are my brushes with greatness.
I admit that this first story is a stretch. My parents played canasta with their best friends, the Porters, every Saturday night for more than 40 years. Somehow, Mr. Porter knew Tony Randall, who played 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 the adults quit playing cards, the air was electric because Mr. Randall was expected to call. The phone soon rang, and 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? Or did he rather 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. We were all young and stupid, and Indiana hadn’t passed any seat-belt laws yet, so we got the bright idea to cram ourselves into a little hatchback and go for a drive. Nine or ten of us fit somehow into that little Nissan, windows down, cruising, enjoying the warm summer air.
At a light, a dark BMW sedan with dark 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 quickly said yes, but immediately asked again for directions. The girl sitting in my lap lived in the area and started to shout the directions as the light changed and the rest of us in the car went nuts. Both cars pulled away, directions still being shouted. We were going pretty fast by the time Jim thanked us, rolled up his window, and zoomed away. Apparently, the Belushis owned property on Long Beach.
Dad’s friend Mr. Porter directed the art museum at the University of Notre Dame, and we got invited to a whole bunch of exhibit openings. I met many of the artists, but the only one to leave any impression on me was Christo. He and his wife Jeanne-Claude do big and sometimes controversial works such as wrapping the German Reichstag in over a million square feet of woven polypropylene in or hanging saffron-colored strips of cloth from saffron-colored vinyl poles in New York’s Central Park.
Christo’s entrance sent electric ripples through the room. The man had his own atmosphere! I felt the air grow thinner as he approached Mr. Porter, next to whom I was standing. Mr. Porter introduced me. Christo didn’t look directly at me as he extended a hand — a limp hand, and a flaccid handshake. What a sharp contrast!
I didn’t exactly meet Richard Carpenter, but I got a letter from him. I’ve always loved the Carpenters’ music, and sometime during my college years I wrote a gushing letter to the Carpenters Fan Club telling them so. A couple months later a letter came for me in an envelope marked with the A&M Records logo. It contained a brief letter from Richard on A&M letterhead saying that my letter touched him. His long signature looked like a convention of ovals. I have to believe it was a form letter handed to Richard for signature, but I was thrilled anyway. I sure wish I knew what happened to that letter.
In college, my friend Michael was music director for the campus radio station. He built relationships with record-company reps, who sometimes invited him to concerts to encourage him to put their artists into rotation. He got invited to a heavy-metal triple bill — Armored Saint, Grim Reaper, and power-metal pioneers Helloween, — up in Chicago, and asked me along. I’m sure you don’t know these bands, but in our world they were a big deal. 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 Michael’s old Buick, a $750 car stuffed with $1,500 of premium audio equipment. We rocked powerfully and distortion-free all the way to the Aragon Theater only to find that the show had been moved to a 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. Didn’t he know we were just two 20-year-old kids from a 160-watt radio station in Terre Haute, Indiana? He treated us like we were from Rolling Stone, giving us his sole attention for as long as Michael had questions. Nick Bowcott was a class act.
Finally, I got to see one of my favorite bands, Heart, play in 2006 at the Morris Performing Arts Center, a fine old theater in South Bend. I was stoked: I had won a contest to briefly meet Ann and Nancy Wilson backstage before the show. The other contest winners and I waited near the stage entrance for our chance. The handler came out and said that our meeting would be very brief and that we could have them sign one item each. I hadn’t thought to bring something to autograph! 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.
As the handler took us backstage, he explained that recently some fans had done upsetting and frightening things at these meet-and-greets, so we would do this in receiving-line style so we wouldn’t overwhelm Ann and Nancy. We were to quietly wait our turn or we would be escorted out, period. The air grew tense as Ann and Nancy came out, flanked by crew. They stayed shoulder to shoulder with each other and looked about anxiously. They dutifully signed the items we brought but didn’t say anything. When my turn came, I told her how much pleasure her music had brought me. She looked confused for a moment, but shortly it registered what I had said. She looked me in the eye and said with surprise, in a throaty voice, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Ann signed what I had in my hands and looked directly at 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, startlingly lovely — but her pupils were the size of sharp pencil points, tiny dots roaring 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. Here’s that photo. The woman between me and Ann had the bright smile.
Why didn’t I think to get a photo with Nick Bowcott?
What are your brushes with greatness?