Over the course of the summer so far, I’ve met an awful lot of people who recognize me from various Buffalo News-related images of my likeness, the poor souls. Nine times out of 10, this is a pleasant experience, and usually ends up turning into a conversation on a shared love for music, or something along those lines. One topic that has come up repeatedly over the years takes the form of a question. It might be “Are you going backstage to meet so-and-so tonight?’ or it might be “Who have you gone backstage to meet in the past?”
I often feel like I’m disappointing people with my response, because most of the time, I’m not planning on going backstage and meeting performers after a show. First off, tight deadlines mean that at the time folks are gathering for a glimpse of their gods in the backstage area, I’m hunched over some sort of device frantically attempting to capture the concert in 800-or-so words. So the logistics of what I do rarely allow me to be backstage kissing the rings of rock stars.
More significantly, though, there’s the fact that I abhor going backstage. This might be hard to believe, but generally speaking, I avoid it at all costs, particularly if I’m “on the job,” where an objective distance from the subject matter is desirable. When it does happen, however, I find myself feeling incredibly uncomfortable. These situations seriously make my skin crawl.
By way of explaining myself, I’ll throw you an anecdote. As many of you know, the legendary blues guitarist and singer Buddy Guy – one of the truly great living bluesmen – was in town last week for a show at Artpark. Guy’s gig was slated for Thursday, but he got into town Wednesday, which was bully for Tom Hambridge, the Buffalo native playing drums in Guy’s band on his current tour, who had scheduled a solo show of his own at the Sportsmen’s Tavern. The buzz was out by Tuesday afternoon – Guy was very likely to show and probably even sit in with Hambridge at the intimate Sportsmen’s on Wednesday.
But then the “backstage mentality” kicked in, and it was all over before it began.
“People were surrounding Buddy, getting in his face, flashing cameras and phones at him,” says Buffalo Music Hall of Fame board member Bob Silvestri, who was there that evening. (I wasn’t, having committed to taking in the wonderfully creepy and much buzzed-about Ghost B.C. at the Town Ballroom on the same night.)
Sportsmen’s proprietor Dwane Hall then got on the microphone, Silvestri recalls, “and said something like, ‘Buddy Guy is in the house tonight, please show him respect and give him his space so he can enjoy himself.’ Unfortunately, then it got worse. People wouldn’t leave him alone. Suddenly, he was just gone. He never got to play with Hambridge, and it sure looked like that was what was going to happen until people started hounding him.”
When I heard this story, I immediately identified with the scenario. Over the 20 years I’ve been writing about music – 12 of them here at The News – I’ve been backstage often enough to get the picture. Prior to becoming a writer, I worked my way through summers during college as part of the team at the box office at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and would often end up backstage as part of my duties. I spent a decade in a band that routinely opened for some big-name bands, too. Almost invariably, the situation is the same. People clamor around the stars, thrust things at them demanding autographs, snap photos, and generally treat the subject as if they are something to be observed, ogled, prodded and treated as a non-human entity.
The bowing and scraping thing gets old for the stars. I’ve been there enough to see it in their eyes. Most of them are incredibly gracious about the whole thing. They willingly participate in meet-and-greets, and try to give every person a bit of their time. They have become good at, as the song says, pretending “a stranger is a long-awaited friend.” The warmest and most welcoming folks I’ve met over the years – Bruce Springsteen and members of the E Street Band, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, Bruce Hornsby, Dweezil Zappa and (believe it or not) Marilyn Manson among them – display a degree of patience I’m not sure I’d possess in a similar situation. Most fans just want a handshake, maybe an autograph or photo, and then happily go on their way. Others want to linger way too long and act is if they have every right to demand some of the star’s time.
What happened at the Sportsmen’s Tavern with Guy unfortunately sounds more like the rule than the exception. We should all accept the fact that the only truly meaningful exchange we are likely to ever have with our musical idols takes place while they are on the stage, and we are in the audience. That should be enough for us.
Granted, it has become increasingly common over the past decade for the artists to offer high-priced VIP packages to their fans, many of them guaranteeing a meet-and-greet session. In that case, buy the ticket and take the ride. If you do end up backstage, or somehow face-to-face with a musical legend, a favorite singer or instrumentalist, or a bona fide rock star, try to remember that they are simply human beings, most of whom are motivated to do what they do out of an enduring passion for music. Sometimes the best way to say to someone, “Hey, I’ve loved your music since I was a little kid, I’m your biggest fan, and don’t you remember when I was in the front row during that show in Biloxi back in 1998?” is to simply leave them alone.