New York Stories: Meeting Spalding Gray

Being a teenager in South Jersey in the 80s, obsessed with the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Andy Warhol, etc., I understandably had dreams of moving to NYC. Hell, repeated late night, VHS viewings of Midnight Cowboy and After Hours only inked the deal. I imagined trolling those mean streets, humming “Everybody’s talkin’ at me…,” bumping into Marty, Woody, Patti, and Iggy on a weekly/bi-weekly basis. This daydream was reinforced by something that happened while I was a sophomore in college, living near—but not in—NYC.

The fall of 1989. Sunday, September 17 to be exact. My college roommate, Dav-o, and I had just seen left-of-center trumpeter Jon Hassell perform at the World Financial Center. Hassell alone would be enough to draw me, but the real thrill was that the sound was mixed by Brian Eno. In fact, I sat as close as possible to the mixing board and watched the Master at work (the closest I may ever get to seeing Eno perform “live”). On the Metro North train back to our college in Westchester, still on an ambient high, I saw someone standing in profile who looked an awful lot like Spalding Gray. Just standing. Not reading. Not writing. Not monolog-ing. Momentarily, I questioned my sanity; I had just spent an hour sitting a few feet from Brian Eno and wondered if my Dream New York was taking shape. I whispered to Dav-o, “Dude, I think that’s Spalding Gray! But I’m not sure.”

“Spalding!” my fearless roommate immediately yelled, and we both shrunk down in our seats to see if he responded. He did, laconically, as you might expect. He had a pencil over his ear, which I thought was a nice touch.

With prodding from Dav-o, I approached Spalding, apologized for drawing attention to him, and we engaged in a brief conversation. I told him I was a fan and went so far as to say that I too enjoyed telling stories. I asked for an autograph. All I had was a paperback of short stories called The Vintage Bradbury. Spalding balked for a moment, feeling disrespectful to the author, but ultimately took his pencil and opened the book. Just as he was poised to write, he paused, looked at his pencil, and tentatively said (at this moment, please adopt your best Spalding Gray voice, timing and delivery): “Um, sorry…It’s a #3 lead.”

 

We both stayed static for a moment, as if this might be a dealbreaker, but he then shrugged and continued.

When I read it, I instantly thought, “Man, you just gave me a great story!”

I’d say watching Brian Eno at work and meeting Spalding Gray within hours qualifies as one of the Best Days of My Life, certainly to the young, impressionable “New York” junkie that still lurks inside me. My run-in with David Byrne ranks pretty high, too. And, naturally, meeting Andy Warhol while I was still in high school has some currency. But they all pale next to my brief one-on-one with Mr. Iggy Pop. (Man, one of these days I’m going to have to write that post.)

My most interesting Adventure with Spalding was yet to happen, and here’s that post about it.

Until then, dig this. In 1992, Gray did an exclusive trailer for the documentary Brother’s Keeper, and until the film came out on DVD, this trailer was considered “rare and precious Spalding”…

And Everything is Going Fine opens today. It’s Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of Mr. Gray. I can’t wait to see it. Here’s the trailer…

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “New York Stories: Meeting Spalding Gray

  1. illy c

    Love this story… one of my favorite shows at the Prospect Park Bandshell was seeing Spalding do ‘interviews with the audience’.
    But what I really want to know is… WHAT IGGY POP STORY???

    • I always wanted to see one of his “Interviews with the Audience.” Lucky you.

      As for the Iggy story, I’m gonna have to sit on that one for a while. He’s got a birthday in April. Maybe I’ll write about it then.

  2. Adam L

    That is the WORST trailer I have ever seen for BROTHER’S KEEPER. Starting with Spauld placing Park Slope in the middle of Utah and going all the way thru his many SPOILERS as they were later to become known.

    But who can resist seeing Old Spauld alive & well.

    Great story, Stephen. I’ve got one of them too, but that’ll have to wait for another comment to your other posting.

    • Interesting reaction, Adam. I never thought of it in those terms (spoilers). I do remember it catching the attention of those who saw it; in other words, his entreaty was taken seriously by the many who knew and trusted him, support I imagine the filmmakers agreed with (they don’t seem like the type to be passive about their films’ promotion). As for spoilers, hell, I don’t recall any of the reviews or press releases being so sacred about the murder or that there was a trial in the film. I may be remembering it wrong, but I felt well-informed when I went into my first screening of it. Too informed? I don’t recall.

      “But who can resist seeing Old Spauld alive & well.”
      Well, that’s the most interesting thing about this trailer in the wake of his passing. At least to me. Y’see, generally, you see Spalding when you’re expecting to see him (i.e. you turn on “Swimming to Cambodia”). But I had forgotten all about this trailer and it was on the DVD, which I got in 2004, shortly after his suicide. I queued up the trailer and suddenly, Spalding was in my living room, talking to me. And without a desk, no less! It hit me hard and made me very emotional. His sincerity, humor, etc–it was all there, and although it was a crappy video transfer of a 16mm print, it felt like a 3-D movie.

      I eagerly await your story and will use it as an incentive to write Spalding, Pt. 2!

      • Adam L

        one more thing about the trailer: too much reading while you’re trying to listen to Spauld. Who can do both? And who WANTS to?

  3. Pingback: Meeting Spalding Gray, Pt 2, or My Adventures in Blurbing | Peel Slowly

  4. Have you seen it yet? It looked good, review!? review?!

  5. Rick Sanborn

    I was introduced to Swimming to Cambodia while dating my late wife, who was responsible for most of my cultural education to the age of 29, and whose influence still accounts, 20 years after her death, for about half of it.

    I got to repay her the favor in some small degree. I was the editor of an Army community newspaper and got press passes to see Spalding perform Monster in a Box at American University. Afterwards I gathered up my wife and presumptuously sauntered back stage to say “hi”. Gray graciously endured a few minutes of our gushing before we excused ourselves.

    A couple of years later we got tickets to Gray’s Anatomy that included a post-performance reception with Gray. My wife was too ill to attend. I lurked around Gray, hoping to speak with him. I thought at first that he seemed aloof, but what he really was was sharply focused on the person who at that moment had is attention.

    When I finally managed to insinuate myself I told him about my circumstances, at which point he called my wife at home to wish her well.

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